SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Restaurants have to provide workers with meal and rest breaks for every five hours of work, but they do not have to check whether the breaks were taken, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The highly anticipated ruling affects millions of workers up and down the state.
"The difficulty with the view that an employer must ensure no work is done - i.e., prohibit work - is that it lacks any textual basis in the wage order or statute," Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote for the unanimous court. "Indeed, the obligation to ensure employees do no work may in some instances be inconsistent with the fundamental employer obligations associated with a meal break: to relieve the employee of all duty and relinquish any employer control over the employee and how he or she spends the time."
Employers have anxiously awaited the outcome of the case filed in 2004 against Brinker International, owner of Chili's and Romano's Macaroni Grill. Restaurant workers say Brinker violated California labor law by requiring employees to take their meal breaks as soon as they arrived at work and sometimes forced them to work nine hours straight without another break.
After a trial court certified classes of employees, the Court of Appeal reversed the decision and vacated the classes. It took two years for the case to reach the California Supreme Court, which heard arguments in November 2011.
While the high court allowed the action against Brinker to proceed regarding rest periods, it remanded the meal-break claim back to the trial court. It also agreed that the vacated claims for off-the-clock work cannot proceed.
Brinker's liability for employees working while off-the-clock is contingent on evidence that Brinker knew such work was taking place, according to the court. "Nothing before the trial court demonstrated how this could be shown through common proof, in the absence of evidence of a uniform policy or practice," Werdegar wrote. "Instead, the trial court was presented with anecdotal evidence of a handful of individual instances in which employees worked off the clock, with or without knowledge or awareness by Brinker supervisors."
A separate concurring opinion from Werdegar and Justice Goodwin Liu said it is up to the trial court to decide how to deal with certification of meal-break claims.
"It remains for the trial court to decide on remand, in the fullness of its discretion, whether in this case methods exist sufficient to render class treatment manageable," Weredegar wrote. "As to that question, neither the full court nor I express any opinion."
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