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California court rules lunch optional for workers

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Jeremy Hobson: California has been the birthplace of a lot of national standards — think fuel efficiency for cars, or smoking bans for public places. Well now, it may be time to add lunch breaks to the list. The California Supreme Court has ruled that while employers have to offer workers a lunch break, they don’t have to make sure employees actually take a lunch break.

Marketplace’s Eve Troeh reports.

Eve Troeh: Ok, I confess: I eat lunch at my desk — while checking email for work. Not great for digestion, I know.

But, not great for the economy, either, says labor scholar Harvey Shaiken at UC Berkeley.

Harvey Shaiken: People could be more stressed, and where service erodes as a result of it.

Service, or the service industry, is what spawned this case. Workers for Brinker International, the company that owns Chili’s restaurants were “allowed” to take breaks, but said they didn’t feel they could, because they’d leave co-workers stranded.

The workers wanted bosses to tell them: “Hey, take your break. No working.” The company’s attorneys said that would violate employees’ freedom to use their time how they want.

The court sided with Chili’s owners — so, my bosses can’t make me stop checking email at lunch.

Shaiken: In a very competitive world, there will be considerable pressures that lead workers to want to show they’re a model employee by working through their lunch break.

When no meal break becomes workplace culture, Shaiken says, the right to take lunch can’t compete with the pressure not to — and that could spread around the country.

In Los Angeles, I’m Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

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