Since Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, California employers have taken great strides in ensuring its employees are provided their daily meal and rest breaks and some California employers have learned the hard way that failure to provide such breaks can expose them to costly penalties and damages.

A win for employers came recently when the California Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Rodriguez v. Taco Bell Corp. threw out a proposed class action against Taco Bell for alleged violations of California law on meal and rest breaks.

 General Rule

California requires all employers to provide non-exempt employees with meal and rest breaks after working a specific number of hours each work day.  See Cal. Labor Code §§ 226.7, 512.  During such breaks, employees must be released of all duty and an employer’s failure to do so afford the employees an additional hour of pay at the employees’ regular rate of compensation for each workday that the meal or rest break was not provided.  See Cal. Labor Code §§ 226.7; see also applicable California Wage Orders.

Rodriguez v. Taco Bell Corp.

As part of its meal and rest break policy, Taco Bell provides its employees the opportunity to purchase discounted meals and receive complimentary drinks to be consumed during their breaks.   In order to receive the discounted meals and complimentary drinks, the employees, among other things, had to consume the discounted meal on the premises.  Employees who choose not to purchase a discounted meal were freely permitted to leave.  Taco Bell argues that the purpose of on-premises consumption requirement was to ensure the benefit was only used by employees and not given to friends and family.

The plaintiff in this case argued that because Taco Bell required its employees to stay on the premises, the employees were subject to employer control and were not relieved of all duties.  The employees are thus entitled to compensation for that time, plus meal and rest break penalties for not receiving off-duty meal and rest breaks.

The court disagreed and focused on the voluntary nature of Taco Bell’s discounted meals policy.  Taco Bell employees were free to leave the premises and spend their breaks in any way they choose.  The employees were even permitted to purchase their meals at full price and eat their meal wherever and with whomever they choose.  Because the employees were not required or compelled to purchase the discounted meals and because, for those who elected to purchase the discounted meals, they were not pressured to perform work for Taco Bell’s benefit during such breaks, Taco Bell’s on-premises meal periods did not violate California law.

Take Away and Best Practices

Have a policy that details the employer’s obligation and the employee’s rights with regard to meal and rest breaks.

  • Distribute such meal and rest break policy annually and have the employees sign a written acknowledgment of receipt.
  • Thoroughly review time cards and time records for missed meal and rest breaks and address them with the applicable employees immediately.
  • This ruling is based upon very specific facts. Any deviation from what employers are legally required to provide to its employees should be discussed with your attorneys before implementation.

It can be very difficult to properly comply with California labor laws, but very easy to get them wrong.  With the potential for costly penalties, damages, interest, and attorneys’ fees, it is worthwhile to contact your attorneys to help in preparing compliant documentation that may mitigate and defend against future lawsuits.

If you have any questions or concerns regarding your meal and rest break policies or any other employment related issues, please contact Garcia & Gurney, ALC.