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Employers don't have to ensure workers take breaks, court rules

April 12, 2012 | 10:52 am

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 Court ruled 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,” Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote in the unanimous decision, “ but the employer need not ensure that no work is done.”

Lawsuits over breaks for workers have inundated the courts. Tens of thousands of California workers who have sued major employers contend 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.

“The Supreme Court handed down a dose of common sense today by ruling that employers should not and cannot be required to be the ‘meal police,’ ” said employment lawyer Wendy Lane.

Michelle Lee Flores, another employment lawyer, called the ruling “a relief.”

The labor code never intended that “California employers should behave like parents to petulant schoolchildren,” Flores said.

Instead of ensuring that workers take their meal breaks, employers must simply provide uninterrupted, 30-minute, duty-free times in which the worker can come and go as he or she pleases, the court said.

Workers are entitled to 10-minute rest breaks for shifts from 3½ hours to 6 hours in length and another 10 minutes of rest for shifts that run six to 10 hours.

The court said that an initial meal break must be scheduled no later than five hours into an employee’s shift, but companies are not required to give workers time for meals at five-hour intervals throughout the workday.

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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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