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California Labor Law Decision by Supreme Court Eagerly Anticipated

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San Francisco, CASo you have a law. Let's say it's a California labor law—and it has to do with meal breaks and rest periods. Employees are deemed to be in need of them to keep the head clear, the skills sharp and the safe operation of equipment within desired parameters.

Here's the question: assuming an employer provides them according to the law, is it at the employee's behest or option to take them? Or does the employer need to force the issue and ensure employees take their breaks?

That's the question the Supreme Court of California has been grappling with for some time now, and a decision was expected this month, according to the Mondaq Business Briefing (02.15.12).

Many a California labor lawsuit has been launched alleging employers deny their employees various meal breaks and rest periods mandated under the California labor code. However, when an employer duly provides the breaks as mandated, what happens next? Is it enough for an employer to simply provide them? Or is an employer subject to sanction if those meal and rest breaks are not rigidly enforced, whether the employee actually wants to take them or not?

According to Mondaq, a lower court in Brinker Restaurant v. Public Storage held that California labor employment law only requires employers to "supply or make available" meal periods. It has been reported that the California Court of Appeals upheld the lower court ruling, which is consistent with several decisions at the federal level.

However, the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, which is charged with the responsibility of enforcing wage and hour laws in the state, is of the view that employers have "an affirmative obligation to ensure the workers are actually relieved of all duty" during meal breaks.

The outcome of the Supreme Court ruling in this California and labor law case could in equal measure shield employers from further class-action lawsuits over the issue or potentially foster even more lawsuits if the guidelines become too rigid.

At present, non-exempt employees are entitled to a meal period for every five hours of work. The meal break is defined as lasting for 30 minutes, uninterrupted. What's more, the employees should be completely off duty, without the requirement to perform or even supervise during that time.

Under current California state labor laws, employers are required to compensate employees for any meal period observed while the employee is on the clock. While there is provision for limited exceptions, by way of a revocable written waiver in limited circumstances, at the end of the day, employers are assessed a penalty equal to a particular employee's regular rate for any meal period violation.

California prevailing wage law notwithstanding (which is always of interest to both sides), this forthcoming decision by the California Supreme Court is eagerly anticipated. To wit, is it enough for an employer to simply provide the breaks? Or will the employer have the right, indeed the legal responsibility, to enforce them? What happens then?

Stay tuned. This California labor law issue is at play and will be of great interest once the decision comes down from on high…

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READER COMMENTS

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An employer who acts indifferantly to lunch and rest period observance, yet rewards 'go-getters' who elect to instead be productive in their meal and rest periods, really is cultivating a coersive outcome of reluctant employee self sacrifice in others.
If employers follow the spirit of the law, issues like this would be anecdotal.

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