The Brinker Decision: Clarifying Employer Obligation to Provide Meal Breaks

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The essence of today’s long-awaited Brinker decision (available here) is that an employer satisfies its obligations under California’s meal break laws “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.”  Brinker at 36.  The Court thus adopted a moderate approach: seeing that employees are permitted to take their breaks, while also accounting for scheduling flexibility and taking a realistic view of the demands of the modern workplace. 

While California requires employers to “provide” employees who work five hours or more with a 30-minute off-duty unpaid meal period, the practical application of this provision has been frequently contested in state and federal courts in recent years.  Brinker finally defines employers’ obligation to “provide” and stops short of requiring that the employer “ensure” employees take their breaks.  Brinker at 36.  In a seemingly pragmatic nod to worker autonomy, the Court left the decision of whether or not to take a break entirely to the employee. 

As to the “rolling five-hour” issue, the Court struck a similarly practical note, holding that California’s meal period requirement “imposes no meal timing requirements beyond those in [Labor Code] section 512” and “an employer’s obligation is to provide a first meal period after no more than five hours of work and a second meal period after no more than 10 hours of work.”  Brinker at 50.