For at least eight years, Santana Alvarado worked as a dishwasher and cook at a Chili's Restaurant in Concord, typically showing up for the job each day around 7 a.m.
But, based on his sworn testimony in an ongoing legal battle, Alvarado had trouble getting his bosses to even give him a break to eat. And when he and his co-workers did manage time off the clock to grab a meal, he recalled, "we were forced to eat in a storage room."
Now, Alvarado is one of five lead plaintiffs in a major legal showdown over employee meal and rest breaks that has reached the California Supreme Court. On Tuesday, the court is set to consider where to draw the line in defining employer obligations to ensure workers actually take breaks required under state law.
The case involves a potential statewide class action against Brinker International, which operates a chain of restaurants that includes such popular eating spots as Chili's and Maggiano's Little Italy, both with restaurants in San Jose's Santana Row. The lawsuit, which could cover tens of thousands of Brinker waiters, waitresses, bartenders, cooks and others, has been unfolding for eight years, claiming the chain's restaurants regularly failed to assure employees got their breaks and thus violated California labor laws.
But the issue before the Supreme Court has far broader implications. With growing legal uncertainty in the area, a cottage industry has sprouted in the courts, where lawyers for
The result has been tension between businesses worried about being sued if their workers don't take their breaks, even if they are offered, and employees who often complain there is an unspoken rule in busy moments on the job that they must forgo lunch and press on with their work.
"The reality is," said Brad Seligman, a lawyer for a number of worker rights groups, "employers set up a situation where it's virtually impossible (to take meal and rest breaks)."
Employers, however, say they comply with the law but shouldn't be forced to be the Lunch Police to avoid lawsuits.
"It's big to our membership," said Jot Condie, CEO of the California Restaurant Association. "We hear daily from companies and independent restaurants being sued because of the unclear nature of the law."
For the Supreme Court, the key issue centers on whether employers need only provide the opportunity for meal and rest breaks under 11-year-old state regulations, or if they must go further and ensure their workers take their breaks to avoid penalties.
State labor regulators have repeatedly punished employers for break violations since beefing up the rules, and a number of companies have paid significant cash settlements to resolve lawsuits.
But employers say it should be enough to craft policies that entitle employees to take their breaks, and leave it to them to follow through.
Brinker's lawyers did not return phone calls seeking comment. But in court papers, the company has denied violations and told the Supreme Court that forcing employers to police meal and rest breaks creates an impossible burden for bosses.
Brinker has support for its position. A state appeals court in 2008 sided with the company, ruling that employers must only make meal and rest breaks available to workers. In addition, the state's labor commissioner urged the Supreme Court to make meal and rest break compliance "free of employer control," warning that going further could "lead to absurd results."
Catherine Fisk, a UC Irvine law professor, said the Supreme Court is likely to stake out a middle ground.
"I think it can't just be an employer has a company manual that says you can take a break, but managers can say, 'What are you doing, why are you taking a break?' " she said. "You have to do more than give lip service to the law."
Kim Kralowec, a lawyer for Alvarado and other Brinker employees, said that is why her clients have been fighting for eight years in the courts.
"The reality is, if meal periods are optional, very few workers are going to get them," she said. "If you tell your supervisor you want to take a break, you risk getting fired."
Contact Howard Mintz at 408-286-0236.