California Supreme Court ponders work break rules

The California Supreme Court, considering a case that will affect meal and rest breaks for all non-unionized hourly workers, appeared inclined Tuesday to give employees flexibility in choosing whether to take scheduled breaks.

The state high court heard arguments in a potential class action lawsuit that is expected to clarify labor requirements for meal and rest breaks. Lawyers for workers in a wide array of industries have swamped the courts with such suits, leaving employers anxious for the state high court to resolve uncertainties in the law.

“In L.A. Superior Court, virtually every day there is at least one and usually more” class action suits over work breaks, said Century City lawyer Scott Witlin, who represents employers and watched Tuesday’s hearing, broadcast on cable television and the Internet.

Labor lawyers want the court to require employers to ensure that their employees take breaks that are required by state labor laws. They argue that many employers make it impossible for workers to take scheduled breaks by imposing hefty workloads or depriving workers of tips when they take time off.


But several members of the court appeared skeptical of imposing rigid requirements.

“Let’s assume one has hundreds or even thousands of employees,” said Justice Joyce L. Kennard, one of the more liberal members of the court. “How is an employer going to ensure each of these hundreds or thousands of workers is actually taking a meal break? Why not give some flexibility?”

Kennard raised the example of a nurse who, while trying to save someone’s life, is interrupted and told, “ ‘It’s time for a meal break.’ ”

Justice Marvin R. Baxter, one of the court’s more conservative members, asked why an employer should have to fire an employee who “enjoys his work” and fails to take a scheduled break. “How is that protective of a worker?” Baxter asked.

The case before the court was brought against Brinker International, which operates chain restaurants, including Chili’s Grill & Bar. The workers who sued said the restaurants made it impossible to take scheduled breaks during busy times. Lawyers said as many as 60,000 current and former Brinker workers could be affected by the court’s decision, which is due within 90 days.

Although the court appeared unlikely to force strict monitoring of breaks, some justices seemed to favor requirements that employers have fought, such as giving workers meal breaks every five hours. In a hint that new rules may be coming, Baxter asked whether the court was required to make all its decisions retroactive. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye implied that the decisions should be retroactive.

Michael Rubin, representing Brinker workers, said some do not take scheduled breaks for fear of missing tips. “Brinker makes people lose money if they exercise their right to take breaks,” he argued.

But Justice Goodwin Liu questioned whether there was any legal authority for requiring employers to pool tips. “Why isn’t the employer allowed to structure their compensation with respect to tips?” he asked.

The court’s decision is due within 90 days.

“I wouldn’t be surprised by a mixed decision — something for everybody to hate,” Witlin said after the hearing.