In a long-awaited decision, the California Supreme Court ruled today in Brinker Restaurant Corporation v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum), Case No. S166350, that an employer’s duty to “provide” meal periods requires the employer to relieve an employee of all duty for the designated meal period, but the employer need not ensure that no work is actually performed.  Despite opinion letters issued by the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement stating that an employer has an affirmative obligation to ensure that employees are “not performing any work,” the Court found that the state statutes and wage orders do not require an employer to ensure no work is done.  The Court found that requiring an employer to police meal periods would conflict with its obligation to relinquish control over employees during meal periods. 

Employees who voluntarily choose to work during an off-duty meal period will not subject the employer to liability as long as the employer satisfied its obligation to relieve its employees of all duties.  Although employers will not be liable for premium pay, employers who know or have reason to know that an employee is performing work during the meal period will be required to compensate that employee at his or her regular rate of pay for the time worked. 

In the context of the class certification issues raised by the case, the Court did not specify what employer approaches to meal periods would satisfy its obligation.   The Court noted, however, that an employer satisfies its obligation if it “relieves its employees of all duty, relinquishes control over their activities and permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so.”  Employers should therefore review scheduling or management policies or practices that would discourage employees from taking off-duty meal periods.  In addition, employers should consider updating handbooks to track the “relieve of all duty” language endorsed by the Court.