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California employers must "provide" meal breaks, but need not "ensure" employees take them
April 12, 2012 by Ross Runkel at LawMemo

Here it is: Brinker v. Superior Court (California 04/12/2012):

Employee Hohnbaum brought a class action claiming violations of California Labor Code Sections 226.7 and 512, and California Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Order No. 5. The trial court granted a motion for class certification. The Court of Appeal reversed, concluding that the trial court erred in granting class certification without first considering the elements of Hohnbaum's claims. The California Supreme Court held that trial courts usually are not required as a matter of law to resolve such threshold disputes over the elements of a claim, but went ahead and resolved some of them anyhow.

(1) Meal breaks.

The most significant issue deals with the employer's duty to provide meal breaks. The court said,

"We conclude an employer's obligation is to relieve its employee of all duty, with the employee thereafter at liberty to use the meal period for whatever purpose he or she desires, but the employer need not ensure that no work is done." "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." "The employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed."

(2) Meal break timing.

The court concluded that,

"absent waiver, section 512 requires a first meal period no later than the end of an employee's fifth hour of work, and a second meal period no later than the end of an employee's 10th hour of work," and that "Wage Order No. 5 does not impose additional timing requirements."

(3) Rest breaks.

Wage Order No. 5 is interpreted as meaning that "an employee would receive no rest break time for shifts of two hours or less, 10 minutes for shifts lasting more than two hours up to six hours, 20 minutes for shifts lasting more than six hours up to 10 hours, and so on." The court rejected the idea that employees are entitled to a rest period before any meal period.

(4) Class certification.

The court remanded the certification of the meal break subclass, upheld certification of a rest break subclass, and rejected certification of an off-the-clock subclass.

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