California Meal and Rest Breaks: At a Glance
Missing meal breaks or rest breaks at work? This Guide provides an overview of California meal and rest break laws, including legal remedies for employees who have been unlawfully denied breaks.
California Meal Breaks
What is a “meal break”?
A meal break is an unpaid, uninterrupted period of 30 minutes provided to employees to spend on personal business such as errands, meals, or anything they choose. Employees are not required to eat during this time.
To provide a lawful meal break, an employer must:
- relieve the employee of all duties;
- relinquish control of the employee’s activities;
- permit a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute meal break; and
- discourage or impede employees from taking meals;
- create incentives to skip meal breaks;
- create incentives to skip meal breaks;
- create a culture that encourages skipping breaks.
Employers must provide meal breaks but do not have to ensure employees take those breaks.
Number and Timing of Meal Breaks
A nonexempt employee working more than five hours in one shift is entitled to one meal period lasting at least 30 minutes. The employer must provide the meal break no later than the end of the fifth work hour. For example, if an employee’s shift begins at 8 a.m. their meal break would look like the following:
|8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.||1st hour|
|9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.||2nd hour|
|10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.||3rd hour|
|11:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m||4th hour|
|12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m.||5th hour – break must|
begin before the end of the
5th hour (i.e., 12:59 p.m.)
An employee working more than ten hours in one shift is entitled to a second 30-minute meal break. The employer must provide a second break no later than the end of the tenth work hour.
The number of breaks an employee is entitled to receive depends on the hours worked, not the hours the employee was scheduled. For example, if an employee is scheduled for a ten-hour shift, but only works a three-hour shift, the employer does not have to provide a meal break.
Waiving Your Right to a Meal Break
An employee working six hours or less in one shift may waive their right to a meal break. Waivers for meal breaks do not need to be in writing, but both parties must consent to the waiver.
If the employee’s shift is greater than ten hours, but will not exceed 12 hours, they can waive their right to a second meal break as long as they take the first meal break—an employee cannot waive both breaks in one workday. Employees working through a meal break are not entitled to leave work early.
|Hours of Work||Number of Meal Breaks||Waiver|
|0 – 5 hours||0||Employees working 5 hours or less do not receive a meal break.|
|5:01 – 10:00 hours||1||Employees working 6 hours or less may waive their meal break by mutual consent of both employer and employee.|
|10:01 – 12:00 hours||2||Employees working more than 10 hours, but less than12 hours, in one shift can waive their second meal break provided they did not waive their first meal break. Employee cannot waive both meal breaks.|
On-Duty Meal Breaks
Circumstances of some jobs may prevent employees from taking a meal break. For example, a sole employee in an all-night convenience store or a security guard stationed alone at a location cannot leave their job in such a way that would qualify as a “meal break” because they cannot be relieved of their duties as discussed above. In addition, employers can also require that employees remain onsite during their meal breaks. In these cases, an employer may provide an on-duty meal break.
On-duty meal breaks are paid breaks and must be agreed to in writing by the employer and employee. The employee must be able to revoke the agreement at any time. Employees cannot collect premium payments for missed on-duty meal breaks.
On-Site Meal Break Requirements
In some situations, including on-duty meal breaks, employees may be required to take their meal breaks on-site. In these instances, the employer must provide a suitable place to eat, and the employee must be paid, even if they are relieved of their duties.
If a meal period occurs during a shift beginning or ending at or between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., the employer must provide facilities for securing hot food and drink or for heating food or drink, and a sheltered place to consume food or drink.
California Rest Breaks
What is a “rest break”?
California requires employers to provide employees ten-minute rest breaks for every four hours (or major fraction) worked. Anything over two hours is a “major fraction” of a four-hour period. For example, an employee who works a seven-hour shift is entitled to two 10-minute rest breaks—one break for the first four hours, and a second break for the last three hours. Three hours is a “major fraction” of four hours, meaning more than half of four hours.
Nonexempt employees who work less than three-and-a-half hours are not entitled to rest breaks.
Requirements for Rest Breaks
Rest breaks must be ten consecutive, uninterrupted minutes. During the break, an employee must be relieved of all duties, and the employer must provide “suitable resting facilities” in an area separate from the toilet rooms. Unlike meal breaks, rest breaks are paid breaks.
As to timing, an employee should take a rest period in the middle of the workday “insofar as practicable.”
Employers cannot require employees to remain on-site or on-call during rest breaks.
|Hours Worked||Number of 10 Minute Rest Breaks|
|0 to 3:29 hours||0|
|3:30 to 6 hours||1|
|6:01 to 10 hours||2|
|10.01 to 14 hours||3|
|14:01 – 18 hours||4|
Waiving Your Right to a Rest Break
Employees may skip rest breaks. Employers cannot pressure or encourage employees to waive rest breaks.
Breaks for Exempt Employees & Industry Exemptions
Exempt employees are entitled to meal breaks, but not rest breaks. Generally, there are three requirements for an employee to be classified as exempt:
- salary must be at least twice the state minimum wage for full-time employment;
- primary duties must be administrative, executive, or professional tasks; and
- duties must involve the employee’s use of discretion and independent judgment.
California also has exemptions for various industries concerning meal and rest break requirements. These industries include healthcare, construction, commercial drivers, union employees, public agencies, the motion picture industry, publically-owned electric utilities, and security officers. This list is not exhaustive, and the exemptions are complicated. If you have questions about your employment status and meal and rest break rights, it is best to consult with an experienced employment attorney.
Employer Penalties for Denying Meal Breaks or Rest Breaks
While some companies fail to provide meal breaks and rest breaks out of ignorance, for others, it may be a calculated decision to save money. If an employer unlawfully denies a meal or rest break, the employee is entitled to one extra hour of pay at their regular hourly rate for each workday the violation occurs. This additional pay is referred to as “premium pay.”
If an employer fails to pay the premium, an employee may:
- handle the dispute himself directly with the employer (informally);
- file a wage claim with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement; or
- file a lawsuit against the employer.
An employee has three years from the date of the violation to bring a claim. Employers may not retaliate or discriminate against employees for asking about a missed break, objecting to an illegal practice, or for filing a claim with the Labor Commission.
Each dispute is unique, and not all employers may be willing to handle the dispute informally, so it is best to consult an employment attorney to assess your options.
California meal and rest break laws can be confusing, so employees must take steps to ensure they fully understand their rights. Nonexempt employees are entitled to one 30-minute meal break for a shift longer than five hours, and a second 30-minute meal break for a shift longer than ten hours. Nonexempt employees are entitled to a ten-minute rest break for every four-hour shift they work.
If you think your employer has unlawfully denied you a break, you may be entitled to compensation. Since California’s meal and rest break laws are incredibly nuanced, you should consider contacting an employment lawyer to assess your case. The experienced employment attorneys at the Ottinger Firm can assist you in reviewing your employment status and potential meal or rest break dispute. For additional information, contact us at 415-508-7786.
Here are a few resources for more infomation on meal breaks and rest breaks: