California Appellate Court Finds Employers Must Only Make “Time Available” for Meal Periods
On October 28, 2010 the California Court of Appeal ruled in Hernandez v. Chipotle Mexican Grill that an employer must only make meal periods “available” for employees and does not have to police whether or not employees actually take the meal period.
In Hernandez, the court looked at a case where a fast food restaurant chain (Chipotle Mexican Grill), employed 3,000 hourly workers in its California restaurants. The employer moved to deny a class certification in the lawsuit filed by Rojelio Hernandez, on the basis that it had met its responsibility under California law by “providing” (making available) meal periods to employees. In support of this motion, the employer submitted declarations from 57 hourly employees who stated that they had received all their meal periods but they had, at one point or another, failed to properly record these meal breaks.
In his case, Hernandez admitted that he received all but one meal period durng his employment with Chipotle. He claimed however, that managers interrupted his meal periods two to three times per week and he submitted declarations from 23 other employees claiming that meals were either denied, interrupted, or delayed.
Courts have been divided in California on the question of whether employers are required to police and enforce or simply provide statutory meal breaks. In this case, Hernandez and his legal team cited Cicairos v. Summit Logistics Inc. wherein the court ruled that California employers were obligated to “ensure” employee meal periods were actually taken. In this case, the trial court denied class action certification and ruled that employers need only make breaks and meal periods available.
It is important to note that the California Supreme Court has not yet ruled on this question. The court of appeals, concurred with the trial court concluding that the California Supreme Court would likely rule that employers are only obligated to provide meal periods.
While this is a favorable ruling for California employers, there is still an open question until the California Supreme Court rules on this issue. Regardless of this Supreme Court ruling, it is important for California Employers to make sure that they handle meal periods and rest periods properly. A class action lawsuit on this issue for a large employer can be one of the highest risks an organization faces, particularly when one considers that the basis for certifying a class of plaintiffs can be very fact specific.
We recommend a wage and hour review be conducted at least every 2 years to confirm that actual practices are appropriate. While California’s statutes are in many respects more onerous than Federal statutes, all US employers have an obligation to properly administer practices and record keeping regarding meals, rest periods, breaks and other wage and hours information related to payroll.
The best way to determine whether your practice meets state and federal guidelines is through a preventative audit in advance of any charge or complaint.