On April 12, 2012, the California Supreme Court issued its much anticipated decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court. The decision rendered by the California Supreme Court is considered a major victory for California employers in the constant battle of meal breaks for employees. The decision clarified an employer’s obligation in providing meal breaks to employees under Wage Order No. 5 and Labor Code Section 512.

Generally, an employer has an obligation to provide a 30 minute meal break to any employee who works more than 5 hours but no more than 6 hours, unless the break is mutually waived. If not waived, the meal break is to begin no later than the end of the 5th hour. If an employee works at least 6 hours, but no more than 10 hours, the employee gets a meal period whether there is a waiver or not, and the period must begin by the end of the 5th hour.

The Brinker decision requires that an employer make meal breaks available to employees who are eligible, as discussed above. An employer satisfies its obligation if “it relieves its employees of all duty, relinquishes control over their activities and permits them to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so.” An employer is not required to ensure that no work is performed by the employee during the meal break.

The Brinker decision has not relieved an employer from having a meal break policy. An employer is still required to track when an employee begins and ends their break. However, should an employee choose to not take their full break, the employer is no longer required to pay a penalty, but must pay the employee for the time worked.

The Brinker decision also clarified the requirements for timing of the meal periods. Plaintiffs argued that a penalty should be paid if an employee works 5 consecutive hours without a meal period. However, the court considered the balance between the employee’s need and desire for a meal break, and an employer’s need to staff their business. The court held that the meal period requirement “imposes no meal timing requirements beyond those in Labor Code section 512″ and “an employer’s obligation is to provide a first meal period after no more than 5 hours of work and a second meal period after no more than 10 hours of work.” There is no responsibility on the employer to ensure that no more than 5 hours passes between meal periods, only that they are afforded within the discussed times.

The Brinker decision is considered a win for employers throughout California. It has clearly defined the employer’s obligations in providing a meal period to eligible employees and has released employers from many of their policing requirements to ensure employees are taking the provided breaks and are not performing work during said breaks. The decision has also given more flexibility to employers to determine when the meal breaks should be taken so as to allow an employer and employee to collectively consider the needs of the business balanced with the employees rightful meal break.