Time Tracking

All You Need To Know About Meal Penalty in California

Samson Kiarie
Last update on:
May 2, 2024 4:41 AM
Published on:

Picture this: you agree to relieve an employee of all duties during the 30-minute meal break but require them to stay on-site. The employee is content with the agreement, and you don’t see the need to compensate them, oblivious of the meal penalty: California. Two years later, the employee sues you, and the court compels you to compensate them. To calculate the potential cost of missed break reimbursements, try this California meal break penalty calculator.

While this is hypothetical, the predicament could hit you hard when you contravene the California meal break laws. Sadly, the complexity of California break laws leaves room for misinterpretation. At the same time, the scarcity of reliable time-tracking tools makes it challenging to implement.


In this guide, we’ll show you the cost of breaking the California meal break requirement. We’ll also discuss some cases where your company could run into a collision course with authorities in California. Lastly, we’ll tell you how Timeero’s California breaks tracker helps you stay compliant. 

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Discover everything about California Breaks Compliance in the above video.

How Does Meal Break Work in California? 

 timeero time tracking app
Timeero has an easy-to-use time-tracking mobile app for Android and iOS users. 

The California meal break penalty comes into effect when you violate the California meal law. To better understand the penalty and how to evade it, you must first wrap your head around all California break law stipulations. 

According to the California labor code section 512 and IWC Orders, your employees are entitled to a meal break of at least 30 minutes if their daily shift is more than five hours. In addition, you should give employees a second meal break of at least 30 minutes if they work more than 10 hours per day. 


The first meal period should come at the end of the fifth hour of work, while the second should come by the end of the tenth hour. Read our California break law guide to learn more about the 30-minute meal and 10-minute rest break rule. 

While the California break rule applies to all non-exempt employees, exceptions exist. For example, California employees covered by IWC Orders 4 & 5, such as those in the healthcare sector, may be subject to minor exceptions regarding the right to leave the work site during the work period. 

Beyond that, some industries may have collective bargaining agreements that override the California meal break law. These verticals include:


  • Construction occupation
  • Security officers
  • Motion picture industry
  • Commercial drivers
  • Electrical or gas companies, to name a few

California Meal Break On and Off-Duty Stipulations  

While time is the crux of the California meal break, it’s prudent to understand the on-and off-duty stipulations.

According to the California meal break, employees are entitled to a bona fide relief from all work-related duties. You should also relinquish all control over your employee’s activities. In other words, you can’t dictate what the employee should or shouldn’t do during the lunch break. 

If you don’t meet these conditions, the meal period becomes “on duty,” meaning your company should compensate employees. While the California meal break frowns up on-duty meal breaks, it leaves a wiggle room for companies where the nature of work isn’t feasible for employees to be relieved of all duties. 

For example, a security firm may require a security guard to remain on-site during the meal break. In this case, there must be a written agreement between the security firm and the guard outlining the rules of the deal. However, the employee retains full rights to revoke the agreement in writing at any time. 

What Is a California Meal Waiver?

timeero california break policy
Timeero automates California break law tracking to streamline compliance. 

The California meal waiver refers to a case where the employee and employer agree to cede the meal break and play by different rules. The meal break law permits employees and employers to waive the first and second meal breaks via mutual consent. 

Ceding the first break is pretty straightforward. The employer and employee only need to sign an agreement, accenting the reasons for waiving the meal break and the rules to play by. Keep in mind that you can only waive the first meal break if the employee shift is six hours or less. 

You can waive the second meal break only if you didn’t waive the first. Still, the employee and employer can waive the second break via mutual consent. However, you cannot waive the second meal break if the employee shift is longer than 12 hours. 

In a nutshell, even if the employee shifts meet the waiver conditions, you cannot waive both on a single shift. It has to be either the first or the second. Like any other mutual agreement related to California break law, the employee can revoke the agreement at any time via writing. 

How Does the Employer Satisfy Its Obligation?

Your obligation in enforcing the California meal penalty transcends allowing employees 30 minutes. As mentioned earlier, you must relieve employees of all duties and take a hands-off approach during that period. 

Beyond that, you should ensure that no employee performs any work-related task during that period. Most importantly, as the California Supreme Court stated during the Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court class action, “the wage order and breaks governing statute disapproves employers coercing employees to skip meal breaks or using incentives to encourage them to forego the meal break. 

You should do everything in your power to impel employees to abide by the break law. If employees engage in work-related activities during the lunch break, with or without your knowledge, you could be in hot soup.

If you know or have a reason to know your employees are working during meal breaks, you owe them compensation. This accentuates the need to be strict on the break laws and leave no room for circumvention. 

What’s the Meal Penalty in California?

Now, with the basics out of our way, let’s dive into the gist of our article. What’s the meal penalty in California?

The California meal penalty is the amount you pay for breaking the meal break law. This amount may entail employee compensation and legal fees. We’ll get into details about these fees in a bit. 

Before that, you could face the meal penalty if you:

  • Do not permit meal breaks altogether.
  • Allow meal breaks shorter than 30 minutes.
  • Require employees to stay on-site without mutual consent.
  • Knowingly let employees work during the meal break.
  • Waive the lunch break without mutual consent.
  • Pressure employees to forego meal breaks (for example, by creating a strict scheduling policy that infringes on employees’ meal breaks).
  • Offer incentives to lure employees to work during the meal break.
  • Employee revokes the waiver agreement, but you ignore it.
  • Waive the first and second breaks for employees working more than 10 hours. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg, the list goes on and on, and you should seek legal counsel from experts well-versed in California labor law to pinpoint possible pitfalls. 

Also, remember that the buck stops with every California employer to seal all loopholes and set the course for full compliance. So, for all intent and purpose, don’t tire of helping employees understand the rest break requirements and the importance of complying with the stipulated laws. 

How Much Is a Meal Break Penalty in California?

timeero break tool
Timeero lets you set meal breaks in accordance with California employment law to sidestep the meal penalty

The meal break penalty in California also called the meal premium pay, is equivalent to the employee’s one hour of pay at their regular hourly rate for each violated or missed break.

Let’s take the case of a company with 20 employees, paying them $25 per hour. If this company violates the break law, requiring the entire workforce to stay on-site during a meal break, it could be in for a hefty penalty. Assuming the vice happens for 12 months, employees can claim a lump sum. 

Let’s do the maths:

A year has 52 weeks. Assuming the employees work five days a week on a regular 8-hour shift, they are entitled to 260 meal breaks that year. That means the meal premium pay will be 260*$25 = $6,500 per employee and a whopping $130,000 in total. The figure could be monstrous, depending on the size of the workforce.

Compensation Procedure

The employee doesn’t have to take the legal route to get the compensation. You may agree on an amicable out-of-court settlement. However, the justice system may take its course if you fail to strike an out-of-court agreement. 

In this case, the employee may file a claim with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) within three years of the alleged violation. The employee must submit evidence of dates and times when the violation happened and other evidence such as:

  • Text, email, or voicemail
  • Video or audio recording
  • Witness statements
  • Company memos  

If the court proves beyond doubt that you violated the break law in any way whatsoever, you’ll pay the meal penalty.

Our legal experts claim that your company may incur other costs. For example, the employee may claim prejudgment interest on the unpaid wage. This is the interest the premium pay accrues while the case is being determined, and its rate varies.

According to Shouse Law Group in California, the interest rate can be 10% per year if a contract exists. If there’s no contract between the employee and the employer, the rate is slightly lower at 7%. Moreover, you may have to compensate the employee for punitive damages, emotional distress, and attorney’s fees. 

As bad as it may sound, the court course doesn’t make it easier for employees to collect additional penalties and fees. As stated in the Naranjo v. Spectrum Security Services, Inc. class action, the California Court of Appeal made it harder for employees to prove the alleged violation. 

The Cost of Retaliation and Discrimination

You’ll only worsen your situation if you retaliate or discriminate against an employee for demanding compensation or filing a lawsuit. Some forms of retaliation and discrimination include threatening the employee, discharging them, or lowering their wages unfairly. 

In this case, the employee can file a discrimination and retaliation complaint with the labor commissioner’s office. If the authorities prove the retaliation or discrimination happened, you’ll face legal action as stipulated in California Labor Code sections 98.6 ad 230. Besides other repercussions, you could pay the employee a civil penalty of up to $10,000.

How Does Timeero Enforce California Break Law

We pointed out two hurdles you must overcome to achieve compliance with the California meal break law. One is the complexity of the stipulations, and the second is the lack of reliable implementation tools. 

Seasoned legal experts will get you through the first hurdle, but that might not be enough to sidestep the complexities that come with implementing the California break law. Remember that if an employee continues working during a lunch break, and you have a reason to know they’re working, you could land in trouble.

assign california break policy
You can assign the California meal break to employees in California and unassign them when they relocate to a different state.

Luckily, the Timeero California break tool thwarts possible break law violation avenues. It enforces the meal break rule on your behalf, so you can focus on running your company, not tracking employee compliance. Here’s how the feature works:

Prevent Users From Ending Break Early

According to the California break law, the meal break should be at least 30 minutes. If employees take a shorter break, either through coercion or other reasons whatsoever, your company contravenes the law. 

In some cases, an employee may end the meal break early to get on with a task they left pending or take the break late when they feel super motivated to finish the task at hand. In both cases, you will break the law. 

Timeero California break tool prevents such cases from happening behind your back or under your nose. Toggle the “Allow users to take breaks manually” and “California break policy” buttons, and configure the meal break rule in the “breaks” tab in the company settings.

Once you do that, go to the California breaks tab and configure the meal break settings. Lastly, assign the break to employees in California. 

If an assigned employee tries to end the break before the 30-minute period elapses, Timeero won’t let them. Instead, they will get the message, “You cannot end your break early. Wait till the minimum break time is exceeded before ending your break.” This ensures that all employees adhere to the break rule. 

Daily Sign-off Form

timeero daily sign-off form
The Daily Sign-off form helps confirm that employees have taken the meal break or mutually agreed to waive them. 

California law compels you to give employees a 30-minute break. You shouldn’t dictate what the employee does during that period or require them to engage in work-related activities. 

However, in some cases, employees might engage in work-related activities behind your back. This might land you in trouble, especially if you have any reason to know that these employees were working during the meal break.

timeero employee signature mobile
Employees can now manually sign and verify their breaks, hours and mileage.

Thankfully, Timeero daily sign-off form shields your company from legal disputes emanating from such cases. When you assign an employee the California break, they will have to sign a form to acknowledge that they used their breaks or waived them following the California break law. 

When the employee who worked more than four hours clicks “clock out,” the daily sign-off form will pop up automatically. There are two questions with “yes” or “no” answers:

  • Did you adhere to the California meal break policy?
  • Did you adhere to the California rest break policy?

Employees who answer “no” will be prompted to give credible reasons for non-compliance. 

The form provides crucial details about the employee’s work day. It shows the total work hours, expected meal break time, and the actual break time. If an employee works more than 10 hours, the scheduled meal break will be 60 minutes (the equivalent of two breaks). You can see whether they took the entire 60 minutes and review the reasons for non-compliance. 

In case of non-compliance, the employee consent in the daily sign-off form will exonerate your company from blame. It will show that you didn’t compel or coerce the employee to break the policy.

Employer Safeguards

We leave no stone unturned regarding shielding you from employee backlash regarding the California break law. If the employee’s reason for non-compliance is false and may implicate your company, you can request them to edit it. 

The exciting part is that only the employee can edit the daily sign-off form. An employee can’t claim that you edited the form to suit your case in court. Even better, the sign-off form is no longer editable after seven days. 

Lastly, in the Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court lawsuit, the court prohibited time rounding when tracking employee meal breaks. Thankfully, Timeero has made it easier to comply with this ruling. 

You only need to uncheck the rounding options under the time rounding settings. This way, the data on employee time punches will represent the time the employee actually spent on the meal break. 

timeero time rounding 
Timeero lets you stop time rounding to comply with the California meal policy. 

Choose a Path Free of Legal Complications

There are two stages to complying with the California meal break law. First, you must interpret the law to create policies aligning your procedures to the stipulations. To be on the safe side, you should seek legal advice from a California labor law expert. 

Second, you have to use time tracking systems that enable you to enforce the law without leaving a grey area. Sadly, such systems are hard to come by. Luckily, you have the easy-to-use Timeero time tracker, which features a custom-built California break tool. 

Timeero California break tool prevents employees from taking shorter meal breaks. It also requires employees who work more than four hours to sign the daily form, attesting to their meal and rest breaks. This meant to exonerate you from any wrongdoing should worse come to worst.

Start a free trial today to get a first-hand feel for the Timeero California break tool.

FAQs: Meal Penalty in California

What Is the Meal Penalty in California 2023?

The meal penalty in California referred to as meal premium pay, is equivalent to an employee’s one hour of pay at their regular hourly rate for each missed meal break.

Can You Waive Meal Penalty California?

No, you cannot waive the meal penalty in California. However, you can waive the meal break through a written mutual agreement between you and the employee agreeing to do so. 

What Are the Rules for Meal Penalty in California?

Employees working more than six hours are entitled to an unpaid meal break of not less than 30 minutes. If an employee’s shift is longer than 10 hours, they are entitled to a second meal break of not less than 30 minutes. Employers should give employees a reasonable opportunity to do non-work-related things.  

What Is the Penalty for Missed Rest Breaks in California?

If you violate the California rest break law, your business incurs the break premium pay for each missed or violated rest period. The premium pay is equivalent to an additional hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate of pay. 

Take the Timeero California break tool for a risk-free whirl for 14 days.

Start a free trial today, no credit card required
Samson Kiarie

Samson is a mathematician turned content marketer specializing in SaaS and Tech content. He focuses on the practical aspects of software systems while keeping abreast of the industry’s cutting-edge principles to create informative and engaging content. When he’s not writing, Samson spends time playing or watching soccer.

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