California law regarding meal breaks is much stricter than federal law (which doesn't actually require any breaks, but merely dictates whether or not a break is paid), and there had been confusion about what exactly is required.
In 2004, employees of restaurant parent company Brinkers (owner of Chili's and other eateries) filed a lawsuit claiming that they had been denied proper breaks under California law. The court returned a ruling last week that declared that although employers were required to provide the opportunity for breaks, they were not required to ensure that employees actually took them.
(This ruling does not determine if Brinkers followed the law or not; it just clarified the law. The facts will be decided in a later hearing. The long, drawn-out nature of this is another reason why you should think long and hard before filing a lawsuit. It is not a quick process.)
Why is this ruling good for employees and employers alike? Because it treats everyone like grown-ups. Companies aren't required to pay their employees for breaks of 20 minutes or longer, but are required to pay for shorter breaks. The jobs in this particular lawsuit are restaurant jobs -- an industry not exactly known for its high wages. There are many employees who would rather work straight through and be paid for their entire time at work, and then sit down in a back room for 30 minutes and not receive pay for that time. Or, in the case of waitstaff, tips.
This doesn't eliminate the requirement for breaks altogether. It emphasizes that the employer make them available, but if the employee does not wish to take it, the employee does not. (Presumably under management approval: a manager would still be able to require an employee to take a break, but if both manager and employee are okay with no break, there is no punishment under California law.)
Of course, if an employee does not take a break, the employer must pay for the time worked. (And you can certainly be fired for working off the clock, as an Illinois woman found out.)
As Steve Hirschfield, a California labor and employment lawyer, said in an interview with the Nation's Restaurant News:
What this ruling says, in essence, is that employers don't have to babysit employees. As long as they make available meal and rest periods and encourage their usage, they are not liable for claims brought by employees that they did not receive them. Employers are not going to be in a situation where they have to act like 'big brother' and constantly monitor employees.
Some employees will opt to work through their shifts without taking a lunch/dinner/breakfast break. And that won't result in a punishment for either employee or employer. And that makes good sense for everyone.