|By Robert Rodriguez, The Fresno Bee,
Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
August 27, 2008 - California employers are breathing a little easier at lunch time after a California Court of Appeals recently ruled in their favor over employee meal breaks.
The state's rules over meal and rest breaks had become one of the most contested and costly issues in the workplace. Numerous lawsuits were filed by employees alleging that their bosses broke the law by not giving them a meal break for every five hours worked.
"This has been a concern of ours for years," said Gary Honeycutt, owner of four BJ's Kountry Kitchen restaurants in Fresno and Clovis.
At the center of the litigation storm is San Diego-based Brinker International, owners of Chili's Grill & Bar, Romano's Macaroni Grill and Maggiano's Little Italy. The chain was sued by five workers for meal break violations, including improperly requiring employees to take early meal breaks, failing to make sure they took timely meal breaks and altering employee time cards. Although a lower court certified the case as a class-action lawsuit with the potential for thousands of plaintiffs and millions of dollars in damages, the appeals court said the case did not meet that threshold.
The appeals court also ruled that employers are obligated to provide a meal break, not make sure it is taken. And the court ruled that employers are not required to provide a meal period for every five hours of consecutive work.
For restaurant owners like Honeycutt, that means he doesn't have to force his servers to take a lunch break during one of the busiest and profitable times of the day.
"That is a big relief," Honeycutt said. "A lot of times the servers did not want to take lunch because they would be losing out on tips. And that is a big part of their pay. This is one of those well-meaning laws that people just didn't think out."
Attorney Doug Larsen of Fresno-based Fishman, Larsen, Goldring & Zeitler called the Brinker decision one of the biggest employment cases of the year.
Larsen provided several of his clients a seminar on the Brinker decision Tuesday morning, saying it provides relief for employers by shifting the burden of taking a meal break onto the employee.
"Employees will now have more flexibility to take their meal period," Larsen said. "And it will be the employee's decision when they take that meal, not the employer's."
But Larsen also cautioned employers to make sure they do not prevent the employee from taking a meal break.
"We want to encourage them to take their meal break, and if they don't, make sure it is not because of us," Larsen said.
To keep employers out of legal trouble, Larsen urged employers to audit themselves by making sure meal breaks are being taken. And if not, why not, he said.
Managers and supervisors must also understand they also cannot discourage or prevent employees from taking their meal breaks, he said.
Employee attorney William Smith said that may be easier said than done.
"Employers seem to rely on the fact that because they have a written policy that says employees shall take meal breaks, that it happens," Smith said. "But when the rubber meets the road, it's the supervisors who make the day-to-day decisions. And they are the ones telling employees to skip lunch, or work off the clock."
Both Smith and Larsen agreed that the appeal court's decision likely will be challenged and ultimately heard by the state Supreme Court. And that could take years.
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