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California Employers Must Give Workers Breaks, Court Rules

Brinker International Inc. and other California employers must relieve workers of their duties so they can take meal breaks, although they don’t have to ensure employees aren’t working, the California Supreme Court said.

The San Francisco-based court said that workers should be freed “of all duty, with the employee thereafter at liberty to use the meal period for whatever purposes he or she desires.”

Employers aren’t obligated to ensure that employees do no work during their breaks, the court said.

“The court’s approach seeks to provide balance in the workplace, allowing employees to take their breaks, while also accounting for scheduling flexibility based on the wishes of the employee and the inherent demands of their job duties,” said Sarah Goldstein, an employment law attorney in Los Angeles.

“From the employer’s perspective, the ruling removes the burden of the meal period penalty payment when an employee voluntarily misses a meal period,” Goldstein said in an e-mail.

California laws require employers to provide hourly workers meal and rest break or give them extra pay.

Roger Thomson, general counsel at Brinker, operator of the Chili’s Grill & Bar and Romano’s Macaroni Grill chains, said the ruling means the company must provide meal breaks and isn’t penalized if servers and cooks choose to work rather than eat.

“Brinker is very pleased with the California Supreme Court’s ruling,” he said in an e-mail.

‘Muddies the Waters’

Art Pulaski, executive secretary for the California Labor Federation, said the court “sided with corporations over the rights of waitresses, health care workers, construction workers, retail workers and others.”

“The decision unnecessarily muddies the waters on businesses’ responsibility to provide meal breaks, which opens the door for worker exploitation,” Pulaski said in an e-mail.

Today’s decision addresses different rulings by lower California courts over how to interpret the state’s meal-break law.

Dozens of companies, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp. and Valero Energy Corp., have been sued in class-action, or group, lawsuits over violations of the statutes. Wal-Mart agreed to pay $75 million in 2010 to settle a class-action lawsuit over meal and rest breaks.

San Diego Court

A San Diego appeals court, ruling in a case brought by workers at Brinker, said employers only have to make breaks available, and not ensure that they’re taken.

In a separate case brought by truck drivers against a warehousing company, a Sacramento-based court said companies must ensure that workers are actually relieved of duty.

Worker rights groups, seeking to discourage employers from understaffing operations, argued that companies must ensure that their employees take breaks, according to court filings.

Company lawyers said employers violate the law only when they require staff to skip breaks and can’t be held liable if workers choose to skip rest periods, according to filings.

The California Supreme Court said the lower court in the Brinker case erred in certifying a class of employees who alleged that they were required to work off the clock because there was no evidence that Brinker had such a policy.

The case is Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, S166350, California Supreme Court (San Francisco).

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