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California Employers Have No Duty to Ensure Employees Do Not Work During Meal Breaks: Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court

By Brandon T. Willenberg

California employers, and employers with California employees, have been waiting for the California Supreme Court to decide Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, regarding the scope of an employer’s duty to provide meal periods.  The significant question before the Court,(among others that the Supreme Court addressed) was whether employers were simply required to provide meal periods to non-exempt employees or, as the plaintiff employee argued, ensure that non-exempt employees do no work during the required thirty-minute meal period.  The California Supreme Court concluded that under IWC Wage Order No. 5 and California Labor Code Section 512, “an employer must relieve the employee of all duty for the designated period, but need not ensure that the employee does no work.”

The California Supreme Court engaged in an exhaustive analysis of the IWC Wage Orders, DLSE opinion letters, Labor Code Section 512, and their respective histories, to conclude that: 

An employer’s duty with respect to meal breaks under both section 512, subdivision (a) and Wage Order No. 5 is an obligation to provide a meal period to its employees.  The employer satisfies this obligation if it relieves its employees of all duty, relinquishes control over their activities and permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so.  What will suffice may vary from industry to industry, and we cannot in the context of this class certification proceeding delineate the full range of approaches that in each instance might be sufficient to satisfy the law.

On the other hand, the employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed.  Bona fide relief from duty and the relinquishing of control satisfies the employer’s obligations, and work by a relieved employee during a meal break does not thereby place the employer in violation of its obligations and create liability for premium pay under Wage Order No. 5, subdivision 11(B) and labor Code Section 226.7, subdivision (b).

This is a great win for California employers and for all employers with California-based non-exempt employees.  Had the Court accepted the plaintiff’s argument, and held that employers must ensure that employees do no work during meal periods, it likely would have opened further the California wage/hour class action litigation floodgates and created a very expensive and time-consuming administrative process (and headache) for employers.  The Court did not craft a bright line test, however, and it remains unclear exactly what conduct will (or will not) satisfy an employer’s obligation to provide a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted break.  Nevertheless,

left open, however, employers can breathe a major sigh of relief that they do not have the burden to “ensure” no work is done during meal periods or police meal periods.


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Martha Zackin