Give Me A Break . . . Or $56.5 Million! (Ten-Year Meal & Rest Breaks Case is a Win for Employees)

In 2004, five employees of the restaurant, Chili's, filed sued their employer claiming that they were illegally denied meal and rest breaks. The employees said the restaurant regularly told them to take early lunches, often right after starting work, and the employees would keep working for up to ten hours without receiving another meal break. Employees also worked while supposedly on their lunch break. Employees were also not provided a rest break before the first meal period.

Chili's is owned by the Brinker Restaurant Corporation, which also owned the Italian restaurant chain, Magiano's Little Italy. Between these two restaurants, they had over 100,000 employees. The employer argued that it had written policies authorizing meal and rest periods for employees. But employees chose not to take breaks and continued to work during their breaks.

The case was intensively litigated for 10 years, going all the way to the California Supreme Court. It is, perhaps, one of the most anticipated cases by the time the high court issued its decision in 2012. However, it wasn't until this year that the Brinker case was finally resolved. Rather than proceed to trial, the parties agreed to settle the case for about $56.5 million.

Under California law, if an employer fails to provide a 30-minute uninterrupted meal period to employees for every 5 hours of work, the employee shall be paid an extra hour of pay. But what, exactly, is the meaning of the word “provide”?

In the Brinker case, the Supreme Court clarified that merely offering or allowing a meal break is not enough. The employer must affirmatively perform these obligations:

  1. Relieve the employee of all duty for an uninterrupted period of 30 minutes
  2. Afford employees the freedom to come and go as they please during their break, including the freedom to leave the workplace if they wish.
  3. Relinquish control over the employees' activities during the break.
  4. Must not be impede or discourage employees from taking breaks.

Employers do not have to “police” or make sure that employees take their meal breaks. However, employers must provide an off-duty meal period. Moreover, employers should not coerce employees into performing duties that omit breaks, or create incentives that forego the taking of breaks.

Even with the lessons of the Brinker case, some employees continue to suffer the illegal denial of meal and rest periods at work. Because these are important rights that impact the health and safety of our workers, those who are denied their breaks and corresponding wages should consult an experienced employment attorney to discuss their options.

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