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Working through lunch? Not the boss' problem, court rules

April 12, 2012 |  1:20 pm

30-minute lunch break

California employers must make it possible for workers to take scheduled breaks but cannot be held liable if employees decide to work instead of rest, the California Supreme decided Thursday.

“We conclude 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 desires, but the employer need not ensure that no work is done,” Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote for a unanimous court.

The state high court ruling came amid a proliferation of lawsuits statewide brought by workers against a wide range of employers. Tens of thousands of California workers have contended in suits that companies evade state labor law requirements by making it impossible for workers to take scheduled breaks. Employers have countered that they should not be forced to police their workers as long as breaks are scheduled and made available.

Thursday’s decision absolves companies of liability when their workers choose to skip breaks, but also prohibits employers from discouraging or in any way impeding workers from taking their scheduled times to rest and eat. The court said employers may not coerce workers or create incentives for them to skip “legally protected breaks.”

Despite the admonitions to employers, representatives of workers expressed disappointment.

“This is just terrible,” said Joann Lo, executive director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, based in Los Angeles. “It’s California taking a step back in terms of protections for workers.”

By failing to require employers to make sure workers take their breaks, the court ignored “the power imbalance between workers and employers,” Lo said.

“Employers will be emboldened -- they’ll be able to get workers to work more and not have to pay them for it,” she said.

The case before the court was filed as a class-action lawsuit against Brinker Restaurant Corp., which owns and operates restaurants throughout California, including Chili's and Maggiano's Little Italy. The suit, representing cooks, stewards, buspersons, wait and host staff and other hourly employees, said Brinker’s restaurants failed to give workers their required breaks.

The suit followed an investigation into Brinker by California’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, which in 2002 began probing whether the restaurants were properly providing rest and meal breaks, maintaining required records and paying premium wages to workers who were not offered breaks. Brinker eventually settled with the enforcement agency for $10 million. That agreement covered workers from 1999 to 2001.

Employers hailed Thursday’s decision as a major victory but conceded the ruling would not end all litigation over work breaks. “It means the employers don’t have to babysit their employees and police them but reminds employers that they have to be responsible and make breaks available, “ said Beth Schroeder, an attorney for employers.

Mandana Massoumi, another lawyer for employers, said the ruling should ensure that employers are not penalized when workers take it upon themselves to skip breaks. Although the court said employees may band together and file class actions against employers, Massourni said the ruling may make class actions more difficult to bring.

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-- Maura Dolan in San Francisco

Photo: Workers take a lunch break in downtown Los Angeles in 2005. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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