San Diego Employers do Not Have to Police Meal Breaks

Mandatory meal breaks for employees are required by California law. Labor Code section 512 and the wage orders adopted by the Industrial Welfare Commission (“IWC”) require these meal breaks. If a San Diego employer violates these meal break laws, employees can file suit and recover the statutory penalties, which are one additional hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate of compensation for each work day that the meal period is not provided. In general, this is called the “meal break premium.” The meal break premium is due whether or not the employee makes a demand for it.

Further, if an employer makes a practice of not paying the meal break premium, that can be considered an unfair business practice under various California unfair competition statutes. See Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17200 et seq. As interpreted by California courts, the California Unfair Competition Law defines an “unfair business practice” as the practice of not paying premium wages for missed, shortened, or delayed meal breaks attributable to the employer’s instructions or undue pressure. In addition to the statutory penalties that can be imposed under the Labor Code, additional penalties, judgments, and damages can be imposed under the California Unfair Competition Law. Injunctive relief can also be imposed on an employer.

As can be seen, the meal break rules are taken seriously and any employer violating those rules can face serious and expensive consequences.

That being said, California law does not require employers to police meal periods to ensure that employees do no work. Under the rules established by the California Supreme Court in the case of Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court of San Diego County, 273 P. 3d 513 (Cal. Supreme Court 2012), an employer satisfies its obligation to provide a meal period “if it relieves its employees of all duty, relinquishes control over their activities, and permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so.”

This rule was recently reaffirmed in the case of Esparza v. Safeway, Inc., 247 Cal. Rptr. 3d 875 (Cal. App. 2nd Dist. June 10, 2019). In that case, back in 2007, Safeway, Inc. — the employer — was sued by various employees who alleged that Safeway made a business practice of not paying the wage break premium under any circumstances. The employee sought to certify a class action of then-existing and former employees. Eventually, the plaintiffs were successful and the trial court certified a class of over 200,000 employees and former employees. If successful, a judgment against the employer would be massive. The statutory penalty is per day that a meal break is not given, is shortened or delayed.

However, recently Safeway was successful in having the class certification dismissed because the certification sought to punish Safeway regardless of the reason that a meal break was missed, shortened, or delayed. There are some circumstances where a missed meal break does not result in liability. Further, some meal breaks can be waived. The recent Esparza decision makes it clear that employers are not required to police meal breaks to ensure that the employees do, in fact, take their meals. For the Esparza plaintiff to succeed going forward, they will have to show — for each employee — the reason or reasons for the alleged missed meal break. That will be difficult. This is a major litigation victory for the employer.

Call San Diego Corporate Law Today

For more information, call corporate attorney Michael Leonard, Esq., of San Diego Corporate Law. Mr. Leonard has been named as “Best of the Bar” by the San Diego Business Journal for four years running. Mr. Leonard has extensive experience in drafting employee policies, employee handbooks, employment contracts, and all other contracts and agreements necessary for running your business. Mr. Leonard can be reached at (858) 483-9200 or via email. Like us on Facebook.

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