Can I Work Through My Lunch Break in California?
To protect employee safety and wellbeing, employers are legally required to give their workers break periods for meals and rest time during the course of a work day.
Sometimes, though, you may not need or want a break. You might think it’s more efficient for you to work through your lunch period, for instance, and finish your work early.
And in some cases, California employees can do just that. In other situations, though, it’s not so simple — or legal — for you to skip your lunch break and work straight through a shift.
California’s meal period laws are often a source of confusion for both employers and employees — especially since those laws often change across industries and from city to city.
This blog post will walk through California’s basic rules around meal breaks, describe the situations when workers are allowed to skip these breaks, and explain what to do if your employer won’t allow you to take your required meal and rest breaks.
We take client communication very seriously and will happily answer all your California meal and rest break queries.
What Are The Rules Around Employee Meal Breaks In California?
California law requires most non-exempt employees to take a certain number of meal breaks and rest periods throughout their workday.
According to California Labor Code Section 512, a meal break is an unpaid, uninterrupted 30-minute period when workers are completely free from work duties.
During this time, employees are free to engage in any activity they choose, even if they’re not eating a meal. Personal tasks, errands, rest — all of this is allowed in those 30 minutes.
The number of meal breaks that workers get corresponds to the length of their shift:
- For more than five consecutive work hours, your employer must give you a 30-minute, uninterrupted meal break.
- For more than 10 consecutive work hours, your employer must give you two 30-minute meal breaks.
- For more than 15 to 20 consecutive work hours, your employer must give you three 30-minute meal breaks.
- For work beyond 20 consecutive hours, you get four 30-minute meal breaks.
Importantly, your employer is only legally obligated to give you the opportunity to have meal break(s) that are totally relieved of employee duties. It’s your responsibility as the employee to actually take the break time and to use this unpaid period for non-work tasks.
In some jobs, you might not be allowed to leave your work site or facility during your lunch break. It’s legal for your employer to do this in California, but if they do, they must pay you at your regular rate for those 30-minute breaks.
For employees who receive salaries and are considered “exempt” from state and federal labor laws, the rules may be different. Generally, salaried employees can expect to receive meal breaks (but not rest breaks).
In California, though, there are some occupations where employees are considered “exempt” but are still legally entitled to meal and rest breaks.
This can include employees who are truck drivers, certain salespeople, and individuals who work in the film industry.
Because meal laws also vary from city to city in California, it’s best to meet with a skilled employment attorney to determine what kinds of breaks you’re qualified to receive.
When Can Workers Skip Their Meal Breaks In California?
There are some circumstances when employees can voluntarily skip meal periods without triggering legal issues for your employer.
Generally, whether or not you can do this depends on 1) the length of your shift and 2) the type of work arrangement you have with your employer.
For instance, if your shift on a given day is less than six hours long, then you’re legally allowed to give up your designated meal break, if you want.
For shifts between 10 and 12 hours, employees are legally entitled to a second 30-minute meal break. In these situations, you can skip the second unpaid break if:
- You didn’t waive your first break.
- You aren’t working more than 12 hours that day.
Be aware: Any time you’re working more than six hours and want to waive a meal break, you have to let your employer know about it beforehand.
In these situations, it’s best to put together a written agreement that clarifies that both you and your boss are okay with this arrangement.
Also, keep in mind that waiving your meal break doesn’t necessarily mean you get to clock out early. Unless your employer tells you otherwise, you’re still expected to work up until your scheduled quitting time, even if you willingly skip lunch.
There are some situations when employees may take what California law calls “on duty” meal periods. This happens in certain roles when someone can’t be entirely relieved of their work responsibilities during break time due to the nature of their job. For instance, a lone security guard who works nights at a remote location.
Since employees in these situations can’t fully give up their duties during their break, their meal periods are paid at their regular rate.
Employers must get an employee’s written agreement in advance for taking on duty meals. Workers must also be able to withdraw their consent to this arrangement at any time.
In California, according to labor laws, employees can waive their lunch break if their work shift is six hours or less. However, it’s essential to note that this waiver must be mutually agreed upon by both the employer and the employee.
What If My Employer Doesn’t Allow Me To Take My California Meal Break?
Under California law, it’s illegal for employees to prevent employees from taking their legally entitled meal and rest breaks.
There are several ways your employer can violate your rights to proper work breaks, including:
- Pressuring you to work through your break time.
- Requiring you to skip meal breaks to finish a task.
- Cutting your designated break time short.
- Making it impossible to take a meal break at all.
When you’re unable to take a required meal break because of your employer, they’re legally obligated to pay you one hour of pay at your regular rate for the break time you missed.
Under California law, your employer has to pay you this extra hour for everyday you couldn’t take your proper meal break.
For example, let’s say that you work as a waiter in San Diego, and your employer demands that you work through your lunch break every day for two weeks (14 days).
For those 14 days that you were denied your meal break, your boss must pay you extra compensation equal to 14 x your hourly wage. So, if you make $16/hour, your employer owes you $224 in extra wages for those two weeks.
Remember, though, 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.
How to Get Help with Your Meal Break Dispute
Navigating the ins and outs of California law around lunch breaks can be confusing. If you work in California and have questions about your meal break rights, the attorneys at Ottinger Employment Lawyers are here to help you.
For more than 20 years, Ottinger Employment Lawyers has devoted our practice to assisting employees in trying situations throughout California. Contact our office today to talk to a lawyer about your case and how we can help you.