The California Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in a high-interest case contending restaurant managers must order meal and rest breaks for tens of thousands of workers rather than leave compliance to their discretion.
The case was initially filed eight years ago against Brinker International, the parent company of Chili's and other eateries, by chain restaurant workers complaining of missed breaks in violation of California labor law.
The case has generated immense interest among labor-law lawyers and a variety of industries grappling with defining responsibilities for meal and rest periods.
Lawyers for the workers argue that not ordering the breaks is a passive way to take advantage of workers who don't want to leave colleagues at busy times.
Brinker's attorney countered that requiring businesses to control the breaks of workers is unmanageable and that taking such breaks should be left to the discretion of employees.
The court's decision is due in 90 days, with the resolution possibly worth millions of dollars to lawyers and companies enmeshed in class-action lawsuits hinging on the issue.
Four of the seven high court justices appeared to side with the chain's argument. The justices wondered if a worker could be fired for disobeying an order to stop work for a meal break.
"The worker should be allowed to do whatever he or she wants to do," during a break, Justice Goodwin Liu said.
The workers' attorney Kimberly Kralowec said the same rules controlling overtime work were at play. Employees are prohibited from working beyond their shifts without permission. Doing so can result in discipline, including dismissal, Kralowec noted.
Justices Marvin Baxter and Carol Corrigan also expressed skepticism over disciplining an employee for skipping a lunch break. Justice Joyce Kennard, meanwhile, questioned how large companies can ensure each employee takes a break.
"Scheduling is going to be a big part of it in most industries," Kralowec said.
Kennard countered with a report discussing how workers such as nurses and truck drivers often are too busy to take breaks and voluntarily give up those rights.
Kralowec said ruling against mandated breaks would expose many workers to abuse.
"The workers in our most vulnerable industries are not going to get their meal breaks," she said.
Brinker's attorney Rex Heinke acknowledged that companies must make breaks available but said they are under no obligation to ensure the workers take the time off during their shifts. Restaurant wait staffs, for instance, often insist on working through busy meal periods rather than taking a break because they earn more tips, he said.
Flexibility in taking breaks fits in with the realities of economic conditions, he added.