"The courts are making it clear that you have to create a system and a procedure that fully allows employees an opportunity to take breaks and meal periods, and if they do that they do not have to be Big Brother and individually monitor each employee to ensure that they've taken every bit of their breaks," said Steve Hirschfeld, founder and CEO of the Employment Law Alliance, an employer-side legal trade group.
Others said the court's opinion did little to stem the tide of meal break lawsuits.
"It left enough holes open that creative plaintiff's lawyers will continue to file these cases. In short, it's business as usual. And already overburdened court system will continue to be flooded by these daily filings," employment lawyer Mark Neubauer said.
Attorneys for workers said low-wage workers such as those at Chili's and other restaurants face unique issues that dissuade them from requesting meal and rest periods.
"The decision ... should have required employers to take affirmative steps to provide meal periods, and not just adopt policies that allow them," Fernando Flores of the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, said in a statement.
"The (court) previously held that employees who are denied their rest and meal periods face greater risk of work-related accidents — especially low-wage workers who engage in manual labor," Flores said.
The Brinker decision doesn't account for the public health and general welfare argument and weakens these standards for millions of low-wage workers across California, he added.
State law has mandated meal and rest breaks for decades. But in 2001, California became one of only a few states that impose a monetary penalty for employers who violate these laws, requiring employers to pay one hour of wages for a missed half-hour meal break. There is no federal law requiring employers to provide such breaks.
There are no estimates of how much has been paid out by employers, because the penalties are paid directly to individual employees, legal experts said.
Meanwhile, California's restaurant owners applauded the opinion as helpful guidance in determining their obligations to employees.
"The ruling dramatically affects how our industry operates and provides clarity to restaurateurs who have been left to guess what their legal obligations are. We believe this ruling will benefit employers and employees alike," said Jot Condie, president and CEO of the California Restaurant Association.
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