Court hears arguments over mandatory meal breaks

A file photo of a meal. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

November 8, 2011 12:58:56 PM PST
In a case that could affect hundreds of thousands of workers statewide, the California Supreme Court heard arguments in San Francisco today on requirements for employee meal breaks.

The case concerns a state Labor Code provision, enacted in 2000, that requires employers to provide workers a 30-minute meal break within five hours of work.

Lawyers for employees of the Brinker International Inc. restaurant group claim that means employers must make sure workers take their breaks.

But attorneys for the company contend the law means only that employers must make breaks available and that workers and managers can be flexible about when the breaks are taken.

Brinker attorney Rex Heinke told the court, "We believe the employer has an obligation to make meal periods available to employees.

"But nowhere in wage orders or the statute does it say the employer must force the employee to take 30 minutes," Heinke argued.

Lawyers for employees say the case affects "vital protections" for the health and safety of workers as well as of members of the public who are served by workers.

The seven-member high court took the case under submission after hearing more than an hour of arguments and now has three months to issue a written ruling.

The case stems from a lawsuit filed in San Diego County Superior Court in 2004 by five Brinker employees on behalf of an estimated 60,000 present and former company workers statewide.

The Dallas-based firm operates several restaurant chains, including Chili's Grill & Bar and Romano's Macaroni Grill.

But the state Labor Commission has said the outcome of the case will affect hundreds of thousands of workers.

The law requires employers to give workers one hour of pay for each missed meal break.

Other issues in the case include the timing and number of 10-minute rest breaks due to workers, and whether the lawsuit can proceed as a class action on behalf of all Brinker workers in the state.

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