California’s Supreme Court has received a “friend of the court” brief filed by Jackson Lewis on behalf of four California chapters of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) as well as ACC’s Employment and Labor Law Committee in the contentious Brinker Restaurant meal and rest period case. The San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, San Diego and Southern California ACC chapters asked Jackson Lewis to file the brief to address a critical and hotly debated wage-and-hour law question facing California employers: What are the rules on meal periods?
The California Supreme Court will review a July 2008 court of appeal ruling in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum), Supreme Court Dkt. No. S166350, holding that California’s Labor Code required employers to “provide” a meal period for employees who worked more than five hours a day, but not ensure that they be used. It ruled that “employers arenot required to provide a meal period for every five consecutive hours worked” and that “while employers cannot impede, discourage or dissuade employees from taking meal periods, they need onlyprovide them and not ensure they are taken….” The court also addressed the companion issue of California’s rest break requirements.
These issues remain critically important to all California employers because of the financial impact from violations. Under the state’s Labor Code, employers who do not provide required meal periods must pay an extra hour of pay each time an eligible employee does not receive a meal period. See Calif. Labor Code §§ 512 & 226.7(b). Claims can be raised up to four years after the fact, and employers risk additional wage-statement and waiting-time penalties for each violation.
In Brinker Restaurant, the plaintiff-employees argue employers must ensure all employees take the required meal periods, even if an employee does not want it. The ACC chapters’ and Committee’s amicus brief argues against such an extreme and unworkable interpretation of the law. Citing the numerous practical compliance issues created by the interpretation advocated by the plaintiffs, the ACC chapters and Committee argued the California Legislature specifically adopted statutory language making clear employers must provide meal breaks, but have no obligation to force employees to take such breaks. They also argued the Legislature adopted this standard to ensure employees always had the right to a meal without placing an undue, unworkable and unfair financial burden on California employers.
Approximately 30 amicus briefs have been filed in the case on behalf of organizations ranging from the State Labor Commissioner, which has responsibility for enforcing the Labor Code, to a variety of employee and employer groups. The case likely will not be argued in the Supreme Court until next year, with a decision following within 90 days of oral argument.