Important Lessons Employers Should Learn from the Supreme Court to Avoid Class Action Wage and Hour Liability
On April 12, 2012, the California Supreme Court handed down the much anticipated decision of Brinker Restaurant Group v. Superior Court. The media immediately touted the decision as a victory for California employers, which to an extent is accurate. However, the lesson employers should take away from Brinker is that they must carefully review their policies and practices regarding rest and meal breaks to ensure that they are in compliance with the Supreme Court's holdings. Failure to do so could result in exposure to serious class action wage and hour claims.
Brinker Restaurant Group owns a number of restaurant chains across the country including Chili's Grill & Bar. Five hourly nonexempt employees sued Brinker for wage and hour violations regarding rest and meal breaks.
In connection with their lawsuit, they sought a class action that would include an untold number of cooks, stewards, bus persons, wait staff, host staff and other nonexempt employees working at restaurants owned by Brinker. Plaintiffs' primary claim was that Brinker failed to provide employees with rest and meal breaks, or premium wages in lieu of rest and meal breaks, as required under the law.
The California Supreme Court made three major holdings regarding plaintiffs' claims. First, it held that under California law, employers must only provide employees with a 30 minute, uninterrupted meal period for every five hours they work; not ensure that their employees take a 30 minute, uninterrupted meal break. Next, the Court held that employers must provide a first meal period no later than five hours into an employee's shift, and a second meal period no later than the end of an employee's 10th hour of work; not every five consecutive hours as the plaintiffs had advocated. Finally, the Court held that a rest break must be provided for each of the following periods of work: 3.5 to 6 hours, 6 to 10 hours, and 10 to 14 hours.
In the aftermath of the Brinker decision, employers must ensure that they are following certain practices regarding rest and meal breaks. For example, the Court clearly stated that it is the employers' burden to prove that they provided their employees with the appropriate meal periods. Thus, while an employer is not required to "police" meal breaks and ensure that the employee does not perform any work during the break, the employer has certain affirmative obligations regarding employee meal breaks. For example, the Court specified that an employer must relieve its employees of all duty during meal periods, relinquish control over their activities, permit them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30 minute meal break, and not impede or discourage them from doing so. It is critical that employers keep accurate records of when employees leave and return from meal periods. It is also prudent for employers to require employees to leave their desks during meal period and take their meals in break rooms or off the employers' premises.
Similarly, employers should ensure that their policies regarding rest breaks are consistent with the Brinker decision. If the policies are not in compliance with either rest or meal breaks, the California Supreme Court made it clear that a plaintiff will be able to certify a class action against the employer based on such non-compliant policies.
Finally, it is imperative that in practice, employers follow their written policies. To this end, employers must train supervisors and managers to ensure that they are not pressuring or coercing employees into working through their breaks. Employers should also implement a discipline procedure for supervisors and managers who do not comply, and there should be a procedure for employees to report to their employers when they are not able to take a rest or meal break.
In short, while the Brinker decision is generally favorable to California employers, there are lessons that employers must take away from it. Most importantly, employers must keep accurate, detailed records, confirm that their rest and meal break policies are consistent with the Brinker decision and ensure that their supervisors and managers are closely following these policies.
WFBM represents employers and regularly provides advice as to their written policies and procedures.