April 12, 2012 ended up being a really good day for California employers! That’s the day the California Supreme Court issued it’s long-awaited decision in the Brinker case, finally providing clarification about rest and meal periods with a decision that was very favorable.
In 2000, both the Legislature and Industrial Welfare Commission adopted for the first time “premium pay” for employees who missed rest and/or meal periods. This premium pay, of one hours’ wages, quickly became a serious issue and led to substantial cases against employers. Initial issues included whether the premium pay was due when employees were provided a lunch but chose to clock back in just a few minutes early, employees did not comply with their lunch schedule and took a later lunch that started after the 5th hour of work, or employees who work outside the office chose to skip their meal periods even though they were scheduled for them. All of those situations triggered the obligation for premium pay.
In the Brinker decision, the Court provided clarification regarding these issues. Most importantly, the Court determined that the obligation to “provide” a meal period does not mean employers must “police” it. “The meal period requirement is satisfied if the employee (1) has at least 30 minutes uninterrupted, (2) is free to leave the premises, and (3) is relieved of all duty for the entire period….Employers must afford employees uninterrupted half-hour periods in which they are relieved of any duty or employer control and are fee to come and go as they please.”
What is important in that statement from the decision is that the employer cannot coerce, require, pressure or otherwise prevent employees from taking their meal period. This applies to both rest and meal periods. If an employee continues to work or clocks in early, the employer will only be liable for premium pay when “it knew or reasonably should have known” that the employee was working through a meal period or coming back early.
Since the determination of whether premium pay is owed is based on the facts of each situation, we recommend you not have a policy of automatically assuming that all situations meet the standards for not owing the premium pay. Each situation should be evaluated to ensure there was no interference with meal or rest periods, so proper payment of premium pay is made when due.
The Brinker decision also addressed the frequency of rest periods, class certification and off-the-clock work. For any questions regarding those, please contact your YPP HR Manager. YPP has updated our Rest and Meal Periods Client Guide for our clients, and has made that available on our HR Support Center linked on https://www.ypp.com/client-resources/.
One way to ensure you have documentation to support not paying premium pay is to have employees sign a statement with their time records that attests to 1) the right to take rest and meal periods; 2) any failure to do so was voluntary; and (3) that there was no off-the-clock work performed.