The California Supreme Court said Thursday that employers are under no obligation to ensure that workers take legally mandated lunch and rest breaks.
The ruling came after workers' attorneys argued that abuses are routine and widespread when companies aren't required to issue direct orders to take breaks.
But the high court sided with business when it ruled that requiring companies to order breaks is unmanageable and that those decisions should be left to workers.
The case was initially filed nine years ago against Brinker International, the parent company of Chili's and other eateries, by restaurant workers complaining of missed breaks in violation of California labor law.
The workers' lawyers said 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.
In 2001, California became one of only a few states that impose a monetary penalty for employers who violate meal and rest break laws, requiring the employer to pay one hour of wages for a missed half hour-meal break. There is no federal law requiring employers to provide such 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.