Do I get a paid lunch break in California?

California law doesn't require paid meal breaks, but rest breaks must be paid.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law


I just started a retail job in California, and my manager told me we don't get paid for our half-hour lunch. And, we have to take two ten-minute breaks per shift, whether we want them or not. Doesn't my employer have to pay me for my lunch break? I've always had paid meal breaks before.


Your California employer does not have to pay you for a meal break. Although California requires employers to provide a meal break (half an hour, if the employee works at least six hours), the break can be unpaid. Employers must pay for meal breaks if the nature of the job requires the employee to remain on duty, and employer and employee agree to the arrangement in writing. For example, if an employee needs to remain at the front desk to let delivery people into the building during lunch, the employee must be paid for that time. If an employer requires employees to remain on-site during lunch, that time also must be paid.

As you note, California employers must give employees a paid ten-minute break for every four hours worked. These breaks aren't always that popular with employees. You work in retail, so you're likely thankful for a bit of time off your feet and out of the public eye. For office workers, however, this time isn't as useful. For workers who smoke, these breaks can be a boon. Otherwise, they don't offer enough time to run an errand or do much of anything. But they are legally required.

Many California employers pay employees for lunch, but this is not a legal requirement. Interestingly, employers are also not required to offer a "lunch" break at anywhere near the lunch hour. Especially in customer service jobs, which require adequate staffing at all times and therefore preclude employees from all taking lunch at the same time, an employee might be scheduled for lunch shortly after arriving at work. In 2012, the California Supreme Court decided that this practice was acceptable. The Court also decided that an employer was not legally obligated to make sure employees took their breaks; the law requires employers to make the breaks available, not to police every employee's actions during their moments off. If, however, an employer pressures employees to work during their breaks or to skip their breaks, the employer has broken the law.

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