Brinker: Employers Need Not Force Meal Periods

I will digest the Court's unanimous Brinker opinion a bit later. Those of you waiting to read it, it is here.

There is a long discussion of class certification in wage hour cases, which I will analyze later.  But
here are the money quotes on rest periods / meal periods.  At first read, this is total victory for the employer's position:

Rest periods:
Employees are entitled to 10 minutes’ rest for shifts from three and one-half to six hours in length, 20 minutes for shifts of more than six hours up to 10 hours, 30 minutes for shifts of more than 10 hours up to 14 hours, and so on.* * * 

Hohnbaum asserts employers have a legal duty to permit their employees a rest period before any meal period. Construing the plain language of the operative wage order, we find no such requirement and agree with the Court of Appeal, which likewise rejected this contention.
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in the context of an eight-hour shift, “[a]s a general matter,” one rest break should fall on either side of the meal break. (Ibid.) Shorter or longer shifts and other factors that render such scheduling impracticable may alter this general rule.

Meal Periods:

Hohnbaum contends that an employer has one additional obligation: to ensure that employees do no work during meal periods. . . . We are not persuaded. The difficulty with the view that an employer must ensure no work is done—i.e., prohibit work—is that it lacks any textual basis in the wage order or statute.
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If work does continue, the employer will not be liable for premium pay. At most, it will be liable for straight pay, and then only when it “knew or reasonably should have known that the worker was working through the authorized meal period.”

Proof an employer had knowledge of employees working through meal periods will not alone subject the employer to liability for premium pay; employees cannot manipulate the flexibility granted them by employers to use their breaks as they see fit to generate such liability. On the other hand, an employer may not undermine a formal policy of providing meal breaks by pressuring employees to perform their duties in ways that omit breaks.
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To summarize: 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).

And finally - no "rolling 5 hour" meal periods.
We conclude 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. We conclude further that, contrary to Hohnbaum’s argument, Wage Order No. 5 does not impose additional timing requirements.