Calif high court case clarifies lunch break laws

January 1, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
A recent California State Supreme Court ruling settles what has been an ongoing issue in the workplace -- providing meal and rest breaks for their employees.

Most of us have had one of those days in the workplace when things get so busy you don't think you have time to take your lunch break or rest periods. In some cases you may have felt pressured by your boss to skip lunch in order to get an assignment done. This whole issue ended up being the subject of a lawsuit known as the Brinker case.

"Part of the problem was some employers were not giving the proper lunch breaks or they were giving them too soon," said Susan Crosno, Human Resources Manager with Electric Motor Shop and Supply.

The company Crosno works for owns several other businesses, with over 200 employees. They have been watching this case closely. "Mainly because of the lawsuits that have been pending -- people saying that they were not being provided with lunch breaks."

At a recent seminar put on by Pridestaff, a national staffing agency based in Fresno, employment and labor law attorney Gary Bethel, spelled out the details for companies. "The court clarified that employers aren't required to ensure that employees take a meal period, they only have to provide them with the opportunity to take that -- and the employee can choose to voluntarily opt whether to do so."

Knowing specifics of the ruling is important because companies faced fines for not providing meal and rest breaks within a set amount of time.

"If the employee worked through a meal period and didn't take a full meal period, didn't take it early enough in the day, the employer has to pay one additional hour pay for every day that occurred," said Bethel.

And paying that penalty everyday can add up. Crosno says her company has made lunch periods mandatory and worked to educate employees about when and why they have to take their breaks. "We are just more vigilant about the mandatory part. We want our employees to take that minimum lunch break and then if they don't they have to let us know in advance."

She also knows there are times when some workers, especially their truck drivers who are busy delivering product, may not be able to fit that lunch break in. "What we've told them stop wherever you can and have lunch. It doesn't always happen, doesn't always happen."

In some cases, company's will have to pay for a missed lunch break, but CCrosno said thanks to the Brinker decision, employees can no longer abuse the policy -- nor can the employer.