California Laws on Meal and Rest Breaks

California employers must provide both meal breaks and rest breaks.

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Does your California employer give you meal and rest breaks? You might be surprised to learn that federal law doesn’t give employees the right to time off to eat lunch (or another meal) or the right to take short breaks during the work day. Although employees must be paid for shorter breaks they are allowed to take during the day, employers are not required to provide these breaks in the first place. Plenty of employers provide these breaks as a matter of custom and policy, perhaps recognizing that an employee who is hungry and tired is neither productive nor pleasant to customers and coworkers. Sensible as this seems, employers are not legally required to allow breaks, at least by federal law.

State law is a different story, however. A number of states require employers to provide meal breaks or rest breaks. California is one of the handful of states that requires both.

Federal Law: Paid versus Unpaid Breaks

Federal law requires employers to pay for hours worked, including certain time that an employer may designate as “breaks.” For example, if an employee has to work through a meal, that time must be paid. A receptionist who must cover the phones or wait for deliveries during lunch must be paid for that time, as must a paralegal who eats lunch at her desk while working or a repair person who grabs a quick bite while driving from one job to the next. Even if an employer refers to this time as a lunch break, the employee is still working and entitled to be paid.

Federal law also requires employers to pay for short breaks an employee is allowed to take during the day. Breaks lasting from five to 20 minutes are considered part of the workday, for which employees must be paid.

Employers do not have to pay for bona fide meal breaks, during which the employee is relieved of all duties for the purpose of eating a meal. An employee need not be allowed to leave the work site during a meal break, as long as the employee doesn’t have to do any work. Ordinarily, a meal break is “bona fide” if it lasts for at least 30 minutes, although shorter breaks may also qualify, depending on the circumstances. 

However, these rules come into play only if an employer allows breaks. Federal law requires only that an employer pay for certain time, even if it is designated as a break. It does not require employers to offer break time in the first place.

California Law Requires Meal and Rest Breaks

California is one of the few states that not only requires employers to provide breaks, but also requires that employees be paid for some of this time. California requires employers to offer both a meal break and paid rest breaks.

Meal Breaks

California requires employers to provide a 30-minute meal break once the employee has worked five hours. An employer does not have to pay for this time; in other words, meal breaks are unpaid. If the employee’s workday will be completed in six hours or less, the employee may consent to waive (give up) the right to a meal break.

An employee who works ten hours is entitled to a second 30-minute unpaid meal break. If the entire workday will not exceed 12 hours, the employee may waive the right to a second meal break. However, the second break may be waived only if the employee actually took the first break. (In other words, an employee may not waive both breaks in one day.)

If the nature of the job prevents employees from taking a break from all duties, employers may provide an on-duty meal period. However, this time must be paid, and the employee must agree to the on-duty break, in writing.

Rest Breaks

California also requires employers to provide rest breaks. Employers must allow employees to take a paid ten-minute rest break for every four hours (or major fraction) worked. If practical, these breaks must be provided in the middle of the work period. Breaks are not required for employees who total daily work time is less than three-and-a-half hours.

Must Employees Take Their Breaks?

In 2012, the California Supreme Court decided a big case about meal and rest breaks. The Court found that employers have met their meal break obligation if they relieve employees of all duties for half an hour and allow employees to leave the worksite. Employers may not pressure employees to work during their meal break, but they are not required to police employees to make sure no one works during a break.

The Court also decided some questions about when breaks must be offered during a shift, including how long an employee may be required to work between breaks. To find out more, see our blog post Meal and Rest Break Guidance from California Supreme Court.

by: , J.D.

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