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In a case that could affect thousands of California employers and millions of workers, the state Supreme Court on Thursday will decide whether managers must order workers to take rest and meal breaks at regular intervals throughout the workday.

The question is whether California labor law requires an employer to simply "provide" meal and rest breaks to employees, or whether it must also "ensure" those breaks are taken at certain times during shifts. The court's decision could also greatly reduce the numerous class-action lawsuits surrounding the issue, which cost companies embroiled in the cases millions of dollars in legal costs.

The closely watched case was filed in 2004 by restaurant workers employed by Brinker International, which owns Chili's and other eateries. The company's attorneys argue that businesses cannot control workers' breaks, and that break timing should be left to an employee's discretion.

The workers' lawyers counter 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.

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