Quick Takes: State-Mandated Lunch Breaks

Workers Should Know Their Rights

The California Supreme Court ruled unanimously on a case filed nine years ago that employers are not obligated to force employees to take legally-mandated lunch breaks. This decision allows for employees to be treated as competent individuals and allows for employers to not usher their workers into meal breaks like babysitters.

Those who have worked in retail or the food service industry in California know how seriously managers take breaks. This is because California is one of the few states that punishes employers monetarily if employees miss their meal periods; for example, if an employee works for more than a five-hour block without a lunch break, they get paid an extra hour automatically. 

This California law and many other federal ones regarding employment are posted on federal green sheet along with EOC policy. This allows for employees to be proactive about their rights.

The ruling was applauded by Roger Thompson, executive vice president and general counsel of Brinker, because it now allows employees the flexibility of when they can take their breaks. If employees so desired, they can postpone their breaks and help through the rush rather than letting their team members be overloaded. This ruling also gives restaurant employers in California a greater understanding of what is expected of them in regards to giving their employees breaks. 

The bottom line is that employees should know their rights and should stand up them if it so comes down to it.

Alex Levin 
Staff Writer

 Ruling Contradicts Fair Labor Act

Employers must give employees thirty-minute lunch breaks, as stipulated by Title 8 of the California Code of Regulations, but they are now not obligated to make these employees take it. This means that if they choose to, employees may work through their breaks without being cited for truant behavior. Though well-intended, the decision is a step in the wrong direction because it chips away at the protection California workers used to have that prevented them from being bullied by employers for working through their breaks. 

The decision contradicts the terms of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, a piece of federal legislation stipulating that workers are not allowed to work for free, even if they want to. This act was put into place to ensure that workers couldn’t easily be bullied or pressured into working through unpaid lunch breaks, which amounts to free labor. It was, and remains to this day, a serious concern for low-income workers. 

Getting too much of a break is a less serious concern. The overly cited case of Sharon Smiley, who was fired from Equity Lifestyle Properties this January for not leaving her desk during her lunch break, is the freak case of an overly active human resources team. Far more common is the case of the worker who was pressured into foregoing his or her lunch break: the Golden State Restaurant Association reports that there have been 131 claims for wages unpaid during skipped meal breaks in the state of California in the last two years alone.

Far fewer employees are pressured into taking their lunch breaks, than are pressured into skipping them. The California Supreme Court is misrepresenting reality when it presents its recent ruling as a win for workers’ freedom.

Ayan Kusari
Staff Writer

Court Decision Brings Legal Clarity 

While it is still illegal for employers to bully workers into skipping lunch, employers no longer face the ridiculous task of policing an employee’s lunch habits. Clarifying this subtlety will bring tremendous security to both employers and employees.

Up until now, employers have had to guess what their exact legal obligation is regarding employee rest breaks, San Diego attorney Julie Dunne said. Calchamber.com lists “meal breaks” as one of the top 10 reasons employers get sued. Dunne says restaurants especially get sued often, spending millions on legal battles and settlements, leaving them less money to hire and expand. Thankfully, she feels the court’s decision should cause a significant reduction in lawsuits.

The ambiguity of meal break rules inconvenienced employees as well. Employers started policing lunch laws in an overbearing way, to ensure compliance with unclear California rules. A January 24 CBS web article explained that HR often makes precautionary demands that are seemingly irrational, such as forcing workers to go to the lunch room, or go home right at 5 p.m. A receptionist at Equity Lifestyle Properties was even fired last January after she insisted on working through lunch to finish her project. Now, this newfound clarity will allow workers to weigh their options and choose to work when they have the greatest potential for commissions or tips. 

This ruling strikes a good balance, ensuring employees are guaranteed meal breaks, while still giving them the flexibility to work when they feel it is most beneficial.

Chris Roteliuk
Staff Writer