Thursday, the California Supreme Court unanimously held that employers are not legally obligated to make sure that workers take legally mandated lunch breaks, according to the Associated Press.

Plaintiff's attorneys argued that employers take advantage of workers who don't want to leave colleagues during busy times if employers are not affirmatively obligated to direct employees to take their mandated lunch break.

The case, decided Thursday,was filed almost 9 years ago against Brinker International, the parent company of various restaurants including Chili's. The restaurant employee plaintiffs claimed that missed breaks violated California labor law.

The court, however, gave employees license to determine when to take their breaks as part of company policy, but held that employers are not obligated to directly compel employees to take breaks.

Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar, who authored the unanimous opinion, observed that under California law employers are required to free workers of job duties for a 30-minute meal break, during which time employees are free to do what they wish, even work.

"The employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed," she wrote.

Despite the court's holding, all was not lost for the plaintiffs according to their lead counsel, Tracee Lorens, who said that the court's decision still allowed some leeway for the case to potentially get class-action certified on their meal break claims.

The court remanded the worker's meal break violation claim, where it will be re-argued before the trial court. There Lorens said she plans to argue that Brinker's company meal break policies still violate state wage-and-hour laws, although the court said employers do not have to police when those breaks are taken.

Roger Thomson, executive vice president and general counsel of Brinker, said that he was pleased with the court's decision regarding what he felt was the key issue in the case. "That was the biggest issue to us," he said. "It has been allowed for our team members to work through lunch if they want or take the time off instead, and this ruling allows our team members that flexibility."

On the whole, counsel for the employers, felt that Thursday's ruling would reduce future class-actions and accordingly save businesses from spending  millions of dollars in future legal costs.

"The courts are making it clear that you have to create a system and a procedure that fully allows employees an opportunity to take breaks and meal periods, and if they do that they do not have to be Big Brother and individually monitor each employee to ensure that they've taken every bit of their breaks," said Steve Hirschfeld, founder and CEO of the Employment Law Alliance.

Others weren't so certain that the court's decision would keep future claims out of California courts.

"It left enough holes open that creative plaintiff's lawyers will continue to file these cases. In short, it's business as usual. And already overburdened court system will continue to be flooded by these daily filings," employment lawyer Mark Neubauer said.

"The (court) previously held that employees who are denied their rest and meal periods face greater risk of work-related accidents — especially low-wage workers who engage in manual labor," said Fernando Flores of the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center.

California state law has mandated meal and rest breaks for decades and in 2001 imposed a monetary penalty against employers who violate these laws (1 hour of wages for each 1/2 hour meal break missed).

Meanwhile, California's restaurant owners were pleased with the opinion because it provides them with clearer guidance in instituting meal policies.

"The ruling dramatically affects how our industry operates and provides clarity to restaurateurs who have been left to guess what their legal obligations are. We believe this ruling will benefit employers and employees alike," said Jot Condie, president and CEO of the California Restaurant Association.

I guess we will have to stay tuned to see if the plaintiff side attorneys are successful on remand, or if the California Supreme Court's decision will ultimately lead the trial court to side with big business.

What do you think?

 

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