Employers not liable if workers skip breaks, court rules

California employers must make it possible for workers to take scheduled breaks but cannot be held liable if employees decide to work instead of rest, the California Supreme Court decided Thursday.

The state high court ruling came amid a proliferation of lawsuits brought by California workers against a wide range of employers, particularly in the restaurant industry, that had sparked anxiety among business owners.

Tens of thousands of workers have contended that companies evade state labor law requirements by making it impossible to take scheduled breaks. Employers have countered that they should not be forced to police their workers as long as breaks are scheduled and made available.

“We conclude an employer’s obligation is to relieve its employee of all duty, with the employee thereafter at liberty to use the meal period for whatever purpose he or she desires, but the employer need not ensure that no work is done,” Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote for a unanimous court.

Jot Condie, chief executive of the California Restaurant Assn., said the litigation has been so heavy that employers “have been taking drastic measures” to try to avoid lawsuits, including forcing servers to stop attending to customers during peak tip-earning times and laying off workers who refused to take breaks.

Although the decision absolves companies of liability when their workers skip breaks, it prohibits employers from discouraging or impeding employees from taking their scheduled time. The court said employers also may not create incentives for them to skip “legally protected breaks.”

Labor activists bemoaned the ruling and expressed fears that it would embolden unscrupulous managers.

“This is just terrible,” said Joann Lo, executive director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, based in Los Angeles. “It’s California taking a step back in terms of protections for workers.”

Lo and others had hoped the court would require employers to prevent workers from skipping breaks. By not doing so, she said, the court ignored “the power imbalance between workers and employers.” She said she feared employers would now “be able to get workers to work more and not have to pay them for it.”

The case was filed against Brinker Restaurant Corp., which owns and operates Chili’s Grill & Bar and Maggiano’s Little Italy, among other California eateries. Cooks, stewards, bus persons, wait and host staff and other hourly employees contended that Brinker restaurants failed to give workers their required breaks.

The suit followed an investigation by California’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, which in 2002 began examining whether Brinker-owned restaurants were properly providing rest and meal breaks, maintaining required records and paying premium wages to workers who were not offered breaks. Brinker eventually settled with the enforcement agency for $10 million, an amount that covered workers from 1999 to 2001.

Faced with an onslaught of similar class-action suits since then, employers said Thursday that they were relieved by the ruling and predicted it would deter, but not end, future suits.

“It means the employers don’t have to baby-sit their employees and police them but reminds employers that they have to be responsible and make breaks available, " said Beth Schroeder, an attorney for employers.

Labor lawyer Kevin A. Lipeles, who represents workers and companies in several pending cases, called the ruling “very surprising in that it’s a win for employers.” He said the decision would make it harder for workers to prove employers violated the law.

Teófilo Reyes, research and policy coordinator at Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, agreed. He cited recent research by the labor group that found that 53.9% of restaurant employees and 51% of food industry workers statewide had worked without a break.

“Employers should not interpret the ruling as an invitation to coerce or intimidate workers into giving up their breaks,” he said. “Unfortunately, we know some of them will.”

Although the court decided that employees may band together and file class actions against employers, the court’s decision would make it more difficult for workers to show their claims are alike enough to be included in a single class, said Mandana Massoumi, an attorney who represents employers.

To avoid liability, employers must “relinquish control over a worker’s activity during scheduled breaks,” the court said, adding that policies may vary according to an industry’s particular needs.

If employees work during breaks, a company will not be required to pay premium wages, the court said. “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.’ ”

“Employees cannot manipulate the flexibility granted them by employers to use their breaks as they see fit to generate such liability,” Werdegar wrote. “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.”

The court also said companies must schedule meal breaks within the first five hours of a worker’s schedule and a second after no more than 10 hours of work. A 10-minute rest break is required for shifts lasting 31/2 hours to six hours and a second rest break for shifts lasting six to 10 hours.