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In a case that could affect thousands of California employers and millions of workers, the state Supreme Court will decide whether managers must order workers to take rest and meal breaks at regular intervals throughout the workday.
The question is whether California labor law requires an employer to simply "provide" meal and rest breaks to employees, or whether it must also "ensure" those breaks are taken at certain times during shifts. The court's decision could also greatly reduce the numerous class action lawsuits surrounding the issue, which cost companies embroiled in the cases millions of dollars in legal costs.
The closely watched case was filed in 2004 by restaurant workers employed by Brinker International, which owns Chili's and other eateries. The company's attorneys argue that businesses cannot control workers' breaks, and that break timing should be left to an employee's discretion.
The workers' lawyers counter that by not ordering breaks at regular intervals throughout the workday, employers are taking advantage of employees who don't want to leave colleagues during busy times.
California is one of only a few states that impose a monetary penalty for employers who violate meal and rest break laws, and there is no federal law requiring employers to provide breaks.
Joan Fife, a San Francisco labor lawyer who represents employers, said uncertainty over the law's requirements have already led many California businesses to implement internal policies designed to make certain that employees take their breaks.
"The argument ... is that the law has always been clear that the employer has to provide a meal break, meaning it cannot stand in the way of it happening," Fife said "But if the employee decides on their own not to take it, that's not a violation of the law."
During oral arguments in November, four of the seven justices appeared to side with Brinker's attorneys, wondering aloud if a worker could be fired for disobeying an order to take a meal break.
Kevin Allen, a workers-side employment lawyer, said he hoped the court's decision will require employers to ensure that their workers take regular breaks. He said the law is there to protect employees from working too many hours in a row with no rest.
"This goes to the whole public policy behind having breaks in the first place," Allen said. "If you just leave these decisions to the free market, employees will be working as many hours as the employer wants them to work for."
If the court sides with Brinker and rules that California law requires employers to simply allow meal and rest breaks -- but not ensure that employees take them -- it will provide clarity in legal disputes that have been at the heart of many current and future lawsuits.
"If the Supreme Court rules that `provide' does not mean `ensure,' the number of meal break, wage-and-hour class actions lawsuits filed in the state, I think, would be reduced," Fife said.
Allen agreed that class action lawsuits will be reduced if the court rules in Brinker's favor, but not eliminated. That's because many employers still have policies regarding breaks that apply to their entire workforces, so if those policies are illegal they can still be subject to workforce-wide litigation.
Also, lawyers who represent companies in wage-and-hour lawsuits say a decision in Brinker's favor will shift the burden of proof from employers to workers in such disputes.
If the court decides that employees are responsible for choosing when their meal breaks are taken, it could mean that the worker would have to prove in court why the employer was at fault for a missed break.
"The burden will be much heavier from a plaintiff's lawyers perspective in trying to prove that there were damages and that the company was culpable, and that's a very different situation from what exists now," said Steve Hirschfeld, founder and CEO of the Employment Law Alliance, a network of employer-side labor lawyers.