California's bosses must lead their workers to lunch, but they cannot force them to eat.
That was the bottom line in a closely watched California Supreme Court ruling Thursday clarifying the law on an employer's obligations to ensure workers actually take their legally required meal and rest breaks.
The justices found that although employers must provide "uninterrupted" opportunities for such breaks, they are not obligated to ensure workers grab that sandwich or cup of coffee and cannot be sued if employees choose to work through their breaks.
The unanimous decision, written by Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, came in an eight-year legal battle against Brinker International, which operates a chain of restaurants that includes such popular eating spots as Chili's and Maggiano's Little Italy. The lawsuit, which could affect thousands of Brinker waiters, waitresses, bartenders and cooks across California, claimed the chain's restaurants violated California labor law by regularly failing to ensure employees got their breaks.
But the Supreme Court ruling has broader implications for hourly workers in everything from hotels to the trucking industry. The decision also will shape the growing number of class action lawsuits low-wage workers are filing against California businesses accused of meal and rest break violations, with restaurants and retailers often the main targets.
Less clear, however, is how the ruling will resolve those legal challenges. Employer groups said the decision would derail lawsuits over meal and rest breaks. But lawyers for workers called the ruling a strike against bosses who try to discourage breaks altogether.
Brinker officials said the ruling "effectively truncates" the lawsuit against its restaurants. And attorneys for employers said it prevented the need to be the "lunch police" to avoid being sued.
"Virtually every employer in California has been held hostage by meal period class actions in the past few years," said Leslie Abbott, who represents employers. "Employers that follow the plain language of the (law) by making compliant meal periods available can now breathe a sigh of relief."
The California Labor Federation called the ruling "unjust," saying it "unnecessarily muddies the waters" on legal obligations for meal and rest breaks and creates a "confusing and vague patchwork" for the workplace.
But a lawyer for the Brinker workers said the decision allows the workers' lawsuit to proceed and "doesn't leave employers much room for mischief."
"We think this was a good result for workers in California," said Kim Kralowec. "They have to create a real and reasonable opportunity to take uninterrupted breaks."
In Thursday's decision, the justices concluded that labor laws clearly obligate employers to provide meal and rest breaks but rejected the argument they must make sure those breaks are work-free. The justices said businesses cannot be sued if they do not "impede or discourage" workers from taking breaks.
"The employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed," the Supreme Court wrote.
The court also found a first meal break must take place no later than five hours into a worker's shift.
As part of the decision, the Supreme Court allowed the lawsuit against Brinker to proceed as a class action on claims of rest break violations. But it sent the issue back to the trial judge to decide whether, in light of the new ruling, the case could proceed in such broad fashion on the meal break claims.
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz