Decision in Brinker v. Superior Court: Employers May Not Interfere with Workers’ Right to Meal Breaks

Decision in Brinker v. Superior Court: Employers May Not Interfere with Workers’ Right to Meal Breaks
April 12, 2012

On April 12, 2012, the California Supreme Court issued its much-awaited decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, clarifying an employer’s obligations to provide hourly—or non-exempt—workers meal and rest periods.

On the central question of what it means to provide meal periods, the Brinker decision concluded that “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 Court reasoned that requiring an employer to police its workers’ breaks would contradict the principle that the employer relinquishes all control during breaks. The Court clarified further than an employer cannot impede breaks by pressuring workers against taking breaks, create incentives to forego breaks, or encourage skipping breaks. In doing so, the Court reaffirmed the long-standing principle that California’s workers are “entitled to uninterrupted half-hour [meal] periods in which they are relieved of any duty or employer control and are free to come and go as they please.”

In plain words, while an employer is not required to prohibit work during a meal period, it is the employer’s responsibility to relieve its employees of all duty so as to allow them the opportunity to take a meaningful break—an uninterrupted 30 minutes to do whatever the worker chooses.

The Brinker case involves a large class of restaurant workers who allegedly missed meal periods, missed rest periods, and worked off-the-clock.

“The decision in Brinker Restaurants v. Superior Court confirms that workers have a right to uninterrupted 30 minute meal breaks.” said Fernando Flores, Director of the Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center’s, WageHELP Program. “Additionally, the Brinker decision recognizes that employers cannot undermine workplace policies providing meal breaks nor can they interfere with, impede, or discourage workers from taking their breaks.”

See the full text of the decision.

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