Working through Lunch: Recent Developments in California Labor & Employment Law Regarding Required Lunch and Rest Breaks

An article today in the Los Angeles Times highlights the difficult working conditions many workers face nationwide, especially in regards to getting adequate time to eat and rest. The article cited a survey that found that 30 percent of food service workers in California didn’t always get a lunch break, even though lunch breaks are required for all workers under the state’s labor & employment laws. Perhaps due to the differing requirements under federal and state laws regarding lunch and other breaks, many workers may be unaware of their rights under the law.
Under federal law, there are no specific requirements for employers to provide lunch or rest breaks to their employees. The only restriction employers must keep in mind under the federal law is that of the overtime provisions of the Federal Law Standards Act. While employers need not offer their employees breaks to eat or rest, they can’t force their employers to work more than 40 hours a week without paying them time and a half. An employer can’t attempt to circumvent this overtime restriction by forcing employees to do work on designated breaks and then try to dock their pay for that time if it brings them over 40 hours a week. If an employee is off the clock, they are off the clock; the employer can’t give them work duties during their breaks and then expect they can escape penalties under the overtime provisions of the Federal Labor Standards Act.
While the federal laws have no specific work or break requirements, state and local laws usually do. In California, state labor laws require that all employers provide breaks for their workers, and a recent decision in April from the California Supreme Court clarified the exact requirements for such breaks. In the decision of Brinker Restaurant v. Superior Court the California Supreme Court, faced with a case brought by Chili’s restaurant and Macaroni Grill workers claiming that they were forced to work through lunch and rest breaks, finally clarified decades-old labor codes to set out the requirements for breaks under California state law. The court set out that all California employers had to provide their employees with at least 30 minutes of break time in a normal work shift for meals, and 10 minutes of rest time for every 3.5 hours a worker was on the job. An employer could not attempt to pressure her workers to forgo breaks through threats of demotion or termination. Any employer who violated these requirements would have to pay one hour of pay per violation as penalty.
Although a groundbreaking decision in California labor and employment law, the case was not a complete victory for the most disadvantaged employees like the food service workers surveyed above, however. This is because the court in its decision also found that employers would not be required to actually monitor if their workers took their breaks. That means while employers are required to provide breaks for their employees, courts will not assume that any time an employee doesn’t take them it’s a violation. This part of the ruling obviously puts many workers in a difficult situation as it does little to relieve employees of informal pressures to work around the clock just to keep up with the competition. Nowadays many employees don’t take breaks not because their employers threaten to fire them, but simply because they are given too much work to handle in the day and they worry that they might lose opportunities if they don’t work as much as their co-workers. While the California Supreme Court took a big step forward in protecting employee rights with its clarification of the exact break requirements under California state law, it has yet to resolve the issue of how to ensure that the most vulnerable employees are not exploited in these difficult economic times.

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