What are the Meal and Rest Break Requirements for CA Employees?

California Meal And Rest Break Requirements For Employees 

Meal and Rest Break Requirements California

Although employees in California are protected by some of the strongest employment laws in the U.S., workers here also experience some of the highest rates of employer wage theft in the country.

One of the most easily overlooked ways that employers steal from their workers? Violating their rights to meal and rest breaks.

Cutting short required break times, pressuring or incentivizing employees to work through them, or making it impossible to even take a break in the first place — all of this is considered a form of illegal wage theft under California law. And it costs California workers an estimated $2 billion per year.

In this blog post, we’ll break down what California’s labor law says about meal and rest periods. We will also go over what kinds of workers are and aren’t entitled to these breaks, and what actions you can take to get restitution when your right to a break is violated.

If you have questions or would like to speak with an experienced California meal and rest break lawyer, please contact us today.

When Are Workers Entitled To Meal Breaks In California?

Under California law, a meal break is an unpaid, uninterrupted period of at least 30 minutes during which employees are totally free of their work duties.

Employers are required to respect workers’ rights to these breaks — it’s illegal to discourage you from taking them or incentivize you for skipping them.

In California, the timing of your meal breaks is determined by the number of hours you’ve worked in your shift. Nonexempt employees — workers paid hourly — are legally entitled to one 30-minute meal break for every five hours of work.

According to the law, your break should technically come before the end of your fifth hour of work. So if you’re a dishwasher and your shift started at 12 p.m., the law says that you’re due a meal break before 5 p.m.

Working more than 10 hours? You get a second 30-minute meal break sometime before you reach that tenth hour of work.

Despite what its name implies, you’re not required to eat during your meal break. Employees can spend this time however they want — on meals, personal business, or even running errands.

During this period, the law says you’re free from any work responsibilities and are entitled to come and go as you please from your place of work — for at least 30 minutes.

There are some situations when workers may not be able to exercise as much freedom during their meal breaks due to the nature of their jobs.

Employees who are on a shift alone, or in a remote location — like a nighttime security guard, or a lone worker at a coffee kiosk — can’t be totally relieved of their duties, as the law requires.

In these cases, “on-duty” meal breaks can be allowed, as long as both the employee and employer agree to them in advance and in writing.

Workers must be allowed to revoke their agreement at any time. They also must be paid for their break time according to their regular rate of pay.

Another special case is when employees are required by their jobs to stay on-site but can be fully relieved from their duties for meal breaks. In these situations, workers are also entitled to be paid for their 30-minute breaks, as well as access to a sheltered place where they can prepare and consume hot food or drink.

Want to skip your meal break? That’s fine, as long as you’re working a shift that’s no longer than six hours, and both you and your boss consent to it. Your waiver doesn’t have to be formalized in writing — a verbal agreement is fine.

If your shift is longer than 10 hours (but no more than 12), you can technically waive your right to the second meal break, as long as you take your first one.

Waiving both breaks in one workday is prohibited. Also, be aware: Opting out of your meal break doesn’t necessarily mean you’re allowed to leave work any earlier.

In California, the majority of workers who are covered by meal break protections are nonexempt or hourly workers. But many exempt or salaried employees who work in certain professions and meet minimum earning requirements must also receive them.

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When Are Workers Entitled To Rest Breaks In California?

In California, in addition to meal breaks, some workers are also entitled to rest breaks: one 10-minute break for every four hours of work.

In California, employees are entitled to paid rest breaks under labor law. Specifically, if an employee works at least 3.5 hours in a day, they have the right to one paid ten-minute rest break. Additionally, if they work at least 6 hours, they are entitled to a second paid ten-minute rest break.

California law recommends that employers give these breaks as close to the middle of the four-hour work period as possible. But in cases when that’s difficult, breaks can be legally taken at another point in the work period.

Like meal breaks, these rest breaks are required to be uninterrupted blocks of time when workers are fully relieved from their job responsibilities. Also like meal breaks, they’re timed and calculated based on total daily work time.

Employees should receive a break for every four hours worked, or after a “major fraction” of that work period. A “major fraction” of a four-hour work period is anything more than two hours of work.

So if you’re working a seven-hour shift, you get two 10-minute breaks: one for the first four hours, the next for the last three hours (which is more than half of a four-hour work period). But if your daily shift is less than 3.5 hours long, you’re not entitled to a rest break by law.

Rest breaks are also different from meal breaks in a couple of ways: 

  • They’re always paid (according to your regular rate of pay).
  • Your employer can’t legally require you to remain on-site or on-call during them (although there are practical limits to how far you can go, given the limited time).
  • Your employer is required to provide you with a suitable area to rest (separate from bathroom facilities).
  • You can skip them if you want (but your boss can’t pressure you to do so).

Importantly, only “non-exempt” (hourly) workers are entitled to rest breaks under California law — employees designated as “exempt” workers are not. 

However, if you’re an employee with an infant child, your employer is required by law to allow you lactation breaks to express milk for your child — provided they don’t exceed a “reasonable” amount of time.

If your employer refuses, or otherwise discriminates against you for requesting accommodations to care for your infant, you may have grounds for a pregnancy discrimination case

What Happens If My Employer Is Denying Me Meal Or Rest Breaks?

If your employer doesn’t allow you to take your legally entitled meal or rest break, then you’re owed financial compensation for that time.

This is called “premium pay.” Under California law, an employer who refuses to allow a worker their 30-minute meal break must pay that worker an additional hour of pay at their regular rate for that day.

For example, if your employer failed to provide you with opportunities to take a meal break for a month — around 20 workdays — you’re owed 20 x your hourly wage. If your regular rate of pay is $15 an hour, that means you’d receive $300 in premium pay.

For missed rest breaks, premium pay works similarly. Employees are entitled to one additional hour of standard pay for each 10-minute rest break that an employer denies.

Take note: Employees are entitled to one additional hour of pay per workday of a missed rest period, not one additional hour of pay for each rest period that was not provided during that workday.

It’s important to be aware: 

  • You aren’t entitled to premium pay for the meal or rest breaks that you willingly skip. Your employer must allow meal and rest breaks to be available for workers — but they’re not required to ensure that you take them. 
  • California also has exemptions for various industries concerning meal and rest break requirements. Workers in certain industries — e.g. healthcare, construction, commercial drivers, the film industry, and unionized workers — have different regulations and rules around hours and breaks. 

If your employer doesn’t give you premium pay for withheld breaks, you have a couple of options for getting compensation. For one, you can file a wage claim with California’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE).

Workers have a three-year window after a meal/rest break violation to file an official complaint with the DLSE, who will investigate the claim and hold a hearing between you and your employer about the incident.

Another option is to file a lawsuit in court against your employer to recover the premium pay you’re owed for missed meal or rest breaks, as well as potential damages.

Take note: It’s illegal for your employer to retaliate against you for requesting breaks or for filing a complaint for violations of California’s wage and break laws.

Firing, demoting, or punishing workers for exercising their legal rights is also prohibited by CA law. If you experience this, you can also file a discrimination/retaliation complaint with the Labor Commissioner’s Office. 

Get in Contact with a California Meal and Rest Break Lawyer Today

Disputes over breaks and compensation can be confusing. Because California’s regulations vary by employee type, industry, and even across cities, it’s often best to consult with an employment attorney.

An experienced lawyer can evaluate your case, help you understand your options, and advocate for you to get the compensation that you deserve.

If you work in California and believe your employer has unlawfully denied you a break, reach out to Ottinger Employment Lawyers today to discuss the details of your case.

Where You Can Find Our California Offices

San Francisco

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Robert Ottinger, Esq.

Robert Ottinger is an employment attorney who focuses on representing executives and employees in employment disputes. Before starting his firm, Robert slugged it out in courtrooms trying cases for the government. Robert served as a Deputy Attorney General for the California Department of Justice in Los Angeles and then as Assistant Attorney General for the New York Attorney General’s Office in Manhattan.

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