American Payroll Association (APA) Basic Guide to Payroll, 2013 Edition
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Ruling at last on a case that has been pending before it since 2008, a unanimous California Supreme Court has held that employers do not have a duty under the California Labor Codes meal period provisions to make sure their hourly workers take their statutorily mandated meal periods; it’s enough to ensure that employees are offered the opportunity to take them. The long-awaited ruling provides much-needed clarity on a vexing wage-hour issue, one that had divided the state’s lower courts.
“An employer’s duty with respect to meal breaks under both [Labor Code] section 512, subdivision (a) and Wage Order No. 5 is an obligation to provide a meal period to its employees. The employer satisfies this obligation 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” the court wrote. “What will suffice may vary from industry to industry, and we cannot in the context of this class certification proceeding delineate the full range of approaches that in each instance might be sufficient to satisfy the law.”
As such, an employee who has been relieved from duty but works during a meal break does not put the employer in violation of state wage law or create liability for premium pay under Wage Order No. 5, subdivision 11(B) and Labor Code Sec. 226.7, subdivision (b).
“The employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed. Bona fide relief from duty and the relinquishing of control satisfies the employer’s obligations.”
The court also held that California’s Wage Order No. 5 imposes no additional meal timing requirement beyond those in Labor Code Sec. 512. “Under the wage order, as under the statute, 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. Section 512 requires a first meal period no later than the end of an employee’s fifth hour of work, and a second meal period no later than the end of an employee’s 10th hour of work.”
In light of its substantive rulings, the high court affirmed in part and reversed in part the state appellate court’s judgment as to three different subclasses of restaurant employees on their state-law wage claims.
Class action implications?
The Brinker decision below had reversed a grant of class certification to 59,000 restaurant employees who had alleged they were denied meal and rest breaks and were forced to work off the clock. Significantly, the employer had argued, if meal and rest breaks need only be made available to employees and the actual taking of breaks not enforced, there could be a myriad of reasons why employees did not take their breaks—reasons that could only be decided based on individualized inquiries on a case-by-case basis—so claims over missed meal and rest periods thus were not amenable to class treatment. Therefore, in addition to establishing the standard of liability for employers in meal break claims, observers had been looking to today’s supreme court decision for its potential significance on the class action front as well.
However, Justice Werdegar, who authored the majority opinion, wrote separately to expressly emphasize what today’s opinion did not say: “In returning the case for reconsideration, the opinion of the court does not endorse Brinker’s argument, accepted by the Court of Appeal, that the question why a meal period was missed renders meal period claims categorically uncertifiable.”(Brinker Restaurant Corp v Superior Court, April 12, 2012, Werdegar, K.)
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