Can I Work Through My Lunch Break in California?

working through lunch breaks

Sometimes you just want to finish up your work and be done.

It’s not unusual to feel like the best way to accomplish that is by working through a lunch break.

In some cases, it’s legal to waive your lunch break and work through your lunch period in California. In other cases, it is not.

California meal period laws can be hard to parse out, especially since those laws change from year to year. In California, employers cannot legally force employees to take lunch breaks.

They are often a source of confusion for both employer and employee.

If you are working through lunch break questions, Ottinger Employment Lawyers can assist you. Contact us online today or call 213-204-8002.

We take client communication very seriously and will happily answer all your California meal and rest break queries.

California Requirements for Meal Breaks

California law requires most non-exempt employees to take a certain number of meal breaks and rest periods throughout their workday.

A meal break is an unpaid, consecutive 30-minute period in which employees can focus on any business they choose, from personal tasks to errands. Employees are not required to eat during these 30 minutes.

If you’re wondering about working through break or lunch periods, or meal periods laws, it’s helpful to know the basics.

California’s working through lunch break law specifies:

  • If you work more than five consecutive hours, your employer must give you a 30-minute, uninterrupted meal break;
  • If you work more than ten consecutive hours, your employer must give you two 30-minute meal breaks;
  • If you work fifteen to twenty consecutive hours, your employer must give you three 30-minute meal breaks; 
  • If you work beyond twenty hours, you get four 30-minute meal breaks;
  • Employers must provide employees 30 uninterrupted minutes for each meal break;
  • Employers are only responsible for providing their employees with break opportunities—taking the break is the employee’s responsibility;
  • Employers must relieve employees of all duties during meal breaks;
  • Employees may do anything they choose during this time; and
  • All 30-minute meal breaks are unpaid.

Salaried or exempt employees who work in certain professions and meet minimum earning requirements must also receive meal breaks.

However, some occupations, like truck driving, construction, and motion pictures, are exempt from specific labor laws. Because meal laws also vary from city to city in California, it’s best to meet with a skilled employment attorney.

An employment attorney can examine your job situation and help you determine what kinds of breaks you qualify for.

California Rules for Skipping Meal Breaks

California allows you to skip meal periods without triggering legal issues for your employer if you volunteered to do so. If you don’t work more than six hours, you can also skip your meal break for any reason.

You may legally waive your meal break if you work more than six hours. But you and your employer must agree to it beforehand, preferably in writing.

These “on-duty” paid periods often occur when the type of work you perform prevents you from leaving your workstation.

For example, if you work alone at night as a cashier in a convenience store and can’t leave your post, you likely qualify for an “on-duty” meal break.

If you work more than 10 hours but less than 12 hours, you can skip your second meal break. However, you must still take your first meal break.

What If My Employer Doesn’t Allow Me to Take My California Meal Break?

There are several ways your employer may impede your meal break. Your employer may require or pressure you to work through your meal break or cut your break short.

Or your employer might make it impossible to take a meal break at all. If any of those things occur, you could be entitled to one extra hour of pay.

Your employer pays this extra hour at your regular rate for every day you didn’t receive a proper meal break.

For example, if your employer failed to provide you with opportunities to take a meal break for a month—or about 22 workdays—you may be entitled to damages equal to 22 x your hourly wage.

In other words, if you make $15/hour, your employer might have to pay $330 in extra wages. 

However, if your employer offered you a meal break and you freely and voluntarily decided to work through your break or eat while working, your employer does not owe you extra pay.

Employers are only responsible for offering you break times and opportunities. Whether you eat or work through those opportunities is your choice. 

Let Us Help You Solve Your Meal Break Dispute

Ottinger Employment Lawyers can help you understand your meal break rights. For more than 20 years, we’ve devoted our practice to assisting employees in trying situations throughout California.

Working through lunch break California law can be confusing, but our skilled wage and hour attorneys can help you solve your dilemma.

We focus on one thing: helping employees resolve complex employment problems. Call or text us today at 213-204-8002.

Author Photo

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.