Employers Not Obligated to Ensure Workers Take Lunch Breaks: Court
In a case that affects thousands of businesses and millions of workers, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that employers are under no obligation to ensure that workers take legally mandated lunch breaks.
The unanimous opinion came after workers’ attorneys argued that abuses are routine and widespread when companies aren’t required to issue direct orders to take the breaks. They claimed employers take advantage of workers who don’t want to leave colleagues during busy times.
The case was initially filed nine years ago against Dallas-based Brinker International, the parent company of Chili’s and other eateries, by restaurant workers complaining of missed breaks in violation of California labor law.
But the high court sided with businesses when it ruled that requiring companies to order breaks is unmanageable and that those decisions should be left to workers. The decision provided clarity that businesses had sought regarding the law.
The opinion written by Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar explained that state law does not compel an employer to ensure employees cease all work during meal periods. Instead, an employee is at liberty to use the time as they choose, she wrote.
“The employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed,” Werdegar wrote.
Tracee Lorens, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said she believed the court’s decision still allowed some wiggle room for the case to get class-action certification on the meal break claims.
Class-action lawsuits are brought by one or more plaintiffs on behalf of themselves and others facing the same circumstances, and can include thousands of people in some cases.
It was unclear whether the opinion would reduce or increase future class-action lawsuits on the issue because the court did not dismiss the meal break violation claim by workers but instead sent it back to be reargued in trial courts.