This morning, the California Supreme Court issued its long awaited opinion in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court. Taking up two crucial issues that have spawned dozens of class action suits across the state, the Court answered the questions: (1) must an employer merely provide a meal break to employees or must it ensure that its employees actually take such breaks, and (2) when during the workday must meal and rest breaks be taken and how many must be provided?

With respect to the first issue of what “providing the employee with a meal period” means, the Court concluded that “an employer’s obligation is to relieve its employee of all duty, with the employee thereafter at liberty to use the meal period for whatever purpose he or she desired, but the employer need not ensure that no work is done.”

With respect to the timing of meal breaks, the Court, contrary to expectations, did not impose a rule requiring that a meal break be taken after every five-hour increment of work. Instead, the Court held that the applicable Wage Order and Labor Code sections contain no such requirement. The Court, however, did find that employers must provide a meal break prior to the end of the first five hours of any shift of more than six hours. Accordingly, Brinker’s practice of scheduling meals near the beginning of an employee’s shift, but then having the employee work more than five hours without another meal break, did not violate the Wage Order or Labor Code.

On the issue of rest breaks, the Court held that an employer must provide a 10-minute rest period for each four hours of work, or “major fraction thereof,” which the Brinker Court defined as meaning a two-hour period, except that employees who work less than three and one-half hours in total need not be provided with any rest breaks.

In addition to these substantive holdings, the Court made a number of comments about the standards for class certification in such cases. In particular, the Court stated that the question why a meal period was missed does not necessarily render meal period claims uncertifiable.

There are steps that all California employers should be taking in the wake of Brinker. Proskauer is hosting a webinar on Wednesday, April 18 at 11 am Pacific to discuss Brinker, its implications, and what California employers should do now in order to protect themselves against meal and rest period claims.