California Supreme Court Rules In Brinker Case – Employers Required To Provide Breaks, But Not Required To Ensure No Work Is Done


This morning, the California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in the case Brinker Restaurant Corporation v. Superior Court of San Diego County. Employees who worked for Brinker Restaurants, such as Chili’s and Maggiano’s Little Italy, claimed that they were not provided the meal and rest breaks to which they were entitled.


Here are a few non-exempt-employee questions answered by Brinker:


1. Does a California employer have to make sure employees stop working and take their breaks? Can an employee work during a break?  

Everyone is aware that non-exempt employees are entitled to rest and meal breaks at defined times during the workday. However, the question presented to the court was whether the employer must “ensure” the employees take their breaks, or merely “provide” the breaks to the employees.

The Court decided that “an employer’s obligation is to relieve its employees of all duty, with the employee thereafter at liberty to use the meal period for whatever purposes he or she desires, but the employer need not ensure that no work is done.” During breaks, employees must be free to come and go as they please, but it is not the employer’s obligation to check on the employee and ensure no work is done. The employee is also free to work, if that is the activity the employee chooses to engage in during the break.

In summary, the court stated that an employer satisfies its burden 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.”

Employees and employers alike were warned not to take advantage of this flexibility. Employers should not create an environment that coerces employees to work during the breaks. Employees will not have a claim merely where an employer is aware that an employee is continuing to work through breaks.

2. Must an employee receive a rest break before he or she gets a meal break?

The California Supreme Court found no requirement for giving a rest period before a meal period. The only requirement is that rest breaks must fall in the middle of work periods, as long as it is practical. This means that the employer must make an effort to give the employees breaks in the middle of the work period, but employers do not have to if there is a legitimate reason.

3. How many rest breaks and how long?

The court broke it down as follows: (These rest breaks do not include required meal periods. )

Shift is 0-3.5 hours: No break.

Shift is 3.5 to 6 hours: 10 minutes

Shift is 6 to 10 hours: 20 minutes

Shift is 10 to 14 hours: 30 minutes

This is not an exhaustive list of employment law questions answered by Brinker. A post will follow up with additional employment questions answered by Brinker.