California Supreme Court: Restaurants must provide, not ensure employee breaks

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The California Supreme Court on Thursday offered a qualified ruling in favor of employers in a long-awaited meal-and-rest break lawsuit involving Chili’s parent Brinker International Inc.

In a decision that many hope will bring clarity to state break requirements and reduce the number of lawsuits that have plagued the restaurant industry, the court said employers across the state need not ensure that workers actually take mandated 30-minute breaks during their shifts.

Employers, however, must make meal and rest breaks available within a certain time during shifts, and they must also keep records of such breaks, the ruling said.

Attorneys for Brinker said they were glad to finally have a decision, which was handed down from the Brinker Restaurant Corp. et al v. The Superior Court for the State of California for the County of San Diego.

The court’s action was seen as a victory for Brinker, though aspects of the case will return to the lower court to play out in light of Thursday’s ruling.

“We’re very pleased that our team members and employees have the flexibility to take or not take their meal breaks,” said Roger Thomson, Dallas-based Brinker’s executive vice president and general counsel.

Steven Katz, an attorney with Reed Smith in Los Angeles, said the ruling was “a clear victory for common sense.”

By allowing employees an opportunity for a meal break, but not forcing them to take a break they may not want, “the court declared the law to be precisely what employees and employers have always thought: it is the employee’s choice to take a meal break, not something forced on employees by the government.”

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Steve Hirschfeld, founder and chief executive of the San Francisco-based labor and employment attorney network Employment Law Alliance, agreed, adding, “What this ruling says, in essence, is that employers don’t have to babysit employees.

“As long as they make available meal and rest periods and encourage their usage, they are not liable for claims brought by employees that they did not receive them,” Hirschfeld said. “Employers are not going to be in a situation where they have to act like ‘big brother’ and constantly monitor employees.”

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