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California Meal Break Law in 2024: Your Ultimate Guide

Understanding California break laws is essential if you're running a business.
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California is known for having the most employee-friendly meal and rest break laws. These laws require employers to give their staff adequate time to rest and eat during their shifts, regardless of whether the breaks are paid. 

Understanding these regulations not only helps you avoid costly penalties, but creates a workplace culture where employees are valued and supported, boosting productivity and long-term success.

In this guide, you’ll discover:

  • The basics of meal and rest break requirements – and how to avoid costly penalties, including the ones associated with PAGA lawsuits.
  • How to minimize legal risks associated with overtime, on-duty breaks, waivers, and other complexities.
  • The best practices for maintaining compliance that protect your business from fines and disruptions through real-life examples.

This guide is your roadmap to doing breaks the right way. 

Disclaimer: Employers should always verify if specific exceptions apply to their employees. Consulting with an attorney or HR professional familiar with California labor law and regulations is recommended, particularly for complex situations.

What Are the Break and Lunch Laws in California?

Salaried, exempt employees often have more flexibility in their breaks, but specific rules still apply. It's a common misconception that exempt status means an employee can be forced to work through breaks. California law protects certain break rights, even for salaried workers. Learn more in our article on California Labor Laws for Salaried Employees.

California labor laws provide both meal and rest break rights to protect employees. However, there are differences in eligibility:

Meal Breaks

  • Non-exempt Employees. Entitled to meal breaks based on the number of hours worked in a day.
  • Most Exempt Employees. Generally entitled to meal breaks. Specific requirements may vary based on the nature of the job, salary level, and employment contract. It's crucial to verify these details to ensure compliance.

Rest Breaks

  • Non-exempt Employees Only: Entitled to rest breaks based on the number of hours worked in a day.

PRO TIP: Legally speaking, rest breaks are generally given to non-exempt employees only. Exempt employees are typically salaried and have more autonomy over their work schedules. Exempt employees are often expected to manage their own breaks when short periods of rest are needed. Check out our article on California overtime laws to learn which employees can be classified as exempt.

Although these are the general requirements, applying break laws to your unique workplace can be tricky. Employers should still consult specific laws and regulations for their industry, as some jobs or sectors may have exceptions to these general rules.

Before discussing California meal break laws in depth, we'll first set the foundation and define important terms like meal and rest breaks. 

What Is a Meal Break?

According to CA Labor Code § 512, a meal break is a 30-minute break provided to employees for every five hours of work. 

It's important to note that the employees aren't required to have lunch during this time (as determined in the Brinker trial). Employees can use this time to take care of personal matters or spend the unpaid meal break as they see fit. 

Typically, a meal break isn't paid and it must be uninterrupted. This means an employer can't require an employee to work while on their break.

However, meal breaks can be paid if the nature of the job prevents an employer from relieving the employee of their duties. We'll address this topic in the section about on-duty meal breaks.

Meal Break Requirements in California

Under the California meal break law, non-exempt and most exempt employees are entitled to meal breaks when their shifts exceed certain lengths.

These are the basic rules that apply:

  • First meal break.  Employees working more than 5 hours a day must receive an uninterrupted 30-minute meal break.
  • Second meal break. Employees working more than 10 hours a day must receive a second uninterrupted 30-minute meal break.
  • Timing. Meal breaks must be taken before the end of the employee's fifth hour of work.
  • Duty-free. Employers must relieve employees of all duties. 
  • Employee Choice. Employees can leave the premises or stay on-site during their meal break.

California Lunch Break Laws: Timing of Breaks

Let's take a close look at one example to better understand lunch break laws in California. 

If an employee's workday begins at 9 a.m., their meal break timing would look like this:

California Meal Break Law Violations

Making California employees work through lunch to get a job done (for example, eating while they finish work-related tasks) is considered a meal break violation. 

Being "on-call" or on duty is also considered a meal break violation. To provide a lawful meal break, your staff must have uninterrupted time while off duty.  


Employer: A small restaurant with a busy lunch rush and limited staff. 

Mistake: Employees are encouraged to eat small bites of food "as they go" during their work time instead of taking formal 30-minute breaks. The owner assumes this is flexible and helps the business. 

Consequence: Even if well-intentioned, this practice violates California meal break law. Employees could file claims for missed break penalties. Additionally, this sets a poor precedent around valuing employee well-being and respecting the law.

What Is a Rest Break?

A rest break is a 10-minute paid break California employers must provide every four hours an employee works (or a major fraction thereof). 

For example, non-exempt employees in California are entitled to two paid 10-minute rest breaks during an 8-hour workday. 

According to California's 10-minute break law, rest breaks must be counted as time worked and paid accordingly.

Rest Break Requirements in California

  • Break Length. Ten minutes of paid rest time for every four hours worked.
  • Timing.  Rest breaks should ideally be taken near the middle of each four-hour work period. Some flexibility is allowed due to practical work considerations.
  • Location. Rest breaks should be taken away from the employee's work area to allow for proper rest.
  • Shorter Shifts. Employees working shifts shorter than 3.5 hours in a day are not entitled to rest breaks.

Employers must ensure employees are able to take their full breaks without interruptions.

The chart below will help you better understand the number of rest breaks your teams are entitled to based on the hours they've worked in a day:

Note: Even if an employee agrees, shortening rest breaks below 10 minutes violates California law.

Violation Scenario: Rest Breaks with Required Gear

Industry: Manufacturing or warehouse facility with mandatory safety equipment (hard hats, vests, protective eyewear, etc.). 

Challenge: Employees feel their 10-minute rest breaks are too short, as removing and putting back on their safety gear takes significant time. This leaves minimal time for actual rest. 

Considerations: Employers must provide proper rest periods, not including the time spent suiting up and removing work gear. However, safety regulations must also be upheld.

Key Takeaway: Employers must factor in the practical realities of their workplace when ensuring workers get the complete rest break they're entitled to under California law.


Potential Solution: Could the break be extended to 15 minutes to ensure compliance? 

How Do California Meal Break Laws Apply to Overtime Work?

Depending on the total number of hours worked, overtime work can necessitate additional meal and/or rest breaks.

Failure to provide these breaks can result in the same costly penalties as any other meal/rest break violation under California law.‍

Are There Any Exceptions to California's Meal And Rest Break Rules?

Yes, there are certain circumstances where California's standard meal and rest break requirements may not apply. 

Here are the key exceptions to keep in mind:

  • Independent Contractors: Individuals classified as independent contractors are not covered by California meal and rest break laws.

  • Unionized Employees with Specific Agreements: In some industries, collective bargaining agreements between unions and employers can establish different meal and rest break schedules. These agreements supersede the standard California Labor Code requirements. Industries where this is common include:some text
    • Construction
    • Commercial drivers
    • Security officers
    • Healthcare
    • Utility companies (electrical, gas)
    • Motion picture industry

Staying Compliant With California Meal Break Laws: The Do’s and Don’ts

To comply with California meal break laws, employers must:

  • Ensure employees are relieved of all work duties during breaks.
  • Allow employees complete control over their activities during break time.
  • Provide a reasonable opportunity for uninterrupted 30-minute meal breaks and 10-minute rest breaks at appropriate intervals.
  • Respect employees' choice of where to spend breaks.
  • Promote a workplace where breaks are valued for supporting productivity and well-being.

Employers must not:

  • Discourage employees from taking their full 30-minute lunch breaks or 10-minute rest breaks.
  • Interrupt employees during breaks.
  • Offer incentives to skip breaks.
  • Create a workplace environment where missing breaks is praised or seen as dedication.

Important Note: Employers must provide breaks but cannot force employees to use them.

California Labor Laws on Breaks: Waiving Right to Breaks

California meal break law allows for the waiving of breaks under specific conditions.

Waiving Meal Breaks

  • Employees can waive their first 30-minute meal break if their total shift is no longer than 6 hours.
  • Employees working shifts exceeding 10 hours are entitled to a second 30-minute meal break. This can be waived if the first break is taken and the total shift does not exceed 12 hours.
  • Employers cannot coerce or pressure employees to waive meal breaks. Waivers must be voluntary and agreed upon by both parties.

Waiving Rest Breaks

  • Employees may choose to skip their 10-minute rest breaks.
  • Employers cannot pressure employees to waive rest breaks (Brinker Restaurant Corporation v. Superior Court).

PRO TIP: While a written waiver for meal breaks isn't always legally required in California, it's strongly recommended. A written agreement provides clear documentation for both employers and employees. 

Remember, employees must be able to revoke a meal break waiver at any time verbally.

On-Duty Meal Breaks: When a Standard Meal Break Isn't Feasible

California law recognizes that the nature of certain jobs makes traditional off-premises meal periods impossible (e.g., a sole security guard or overnight convenience store worker). 

In these specific situations, employers can offer on-duty meal breaks while keeping the following in mind:

  • On-duty meal breaks are paid, while standard meal breaks are not.
  • Both the employee and employer must agree to this arrangement in writing. Employees can revoke this agreement at any time.

Employer Obligations:

If you offer on-duty meal breaks, you must ensure:

  • Employees have a suitable place to eat their meals.
  • Employees are fully paid during their break, even if they are not actively working.
  • You meet all specific requirements to provide on-duty breaks under California law.

What Is the California Meal Penalty?

‍California law takes meal and rest break violations seriously. If your employees are denied these breaks, you face significant penalties. 

To assess your risk accurately, consider trying our California meal penalty calculator. This tool can provide quick estimates based on break violations.

Understanding Premium Pay

Premium pay means an employee receives one extra hour of wages paid at their regular pay rate for each missed 30-minute meal break or 10-minute rest break.

Read our article, All You Need to Know About Meal Penalty in California for more information.

Consequences for Employers

  • Financial Penalties. Premium pay must be included in the employee's next paycheck. These penalties quickly add up, especially if they apply to multiple employees.

  • Legal Action. Employees have the right to file wage claims or lawsuits, which can be costly and time-consuming to defend.

  • Damage to Reputation and Morale. Denying breaks harms workplace culture and can make it harder to attract and retain good employees.

PAGA Lawsuits: Increased Risk for Employers in California

Beyond individual wage claims, California's Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) allows employees to sue the state for labor law violations, including missed meals and rest breaks.

PAGA penalties can be significant, with 75% of recovered funds going to the state of California.


PRO TIP: Some employment lawyers specialize in PAGA cases and actively seek out violations. This means even minor or unintentional break law infractions can put your business at risk.

California Meal Break Laws: Best Practices for Compliance

“The issue with meal and rest breaks and many other wage and hour issues is that they're really a hair-trigger liability. That means you could have made an honest mistake. You could have made every effort to comply. You could have been trying and still got it wrong or not realized that you had employees taking meal periods at 5.2 hours rather than before the fifth hour of work. And as a result of that, you have lawsuits that are “employees sue first and then ask questions later.” 
Amber S.Healy

Watch the webinar recording for expert insights into California Break Compliance.

Proactive compliance is essential to protecting your business from costly penalties and fostering a positive, productive work environment. 

So, what areas should you focus on to maintain compliance?

  1. Break Timekeeping
  2. Policy and Communication
  3. Accountability and Proactive Problem-Solving

Let’s take a look at each area in more detail.

1. Break Timekeeping: Use Apps for Accurate Break Compliance

In California, precise timekeeping is crucial for meal and rest break compliance. Here's what employers need to know:

Why Track Meal Breaks?

  • Legal Requirement. You must accurately track the start and end of meal breaks to demonstrate compliance and calculate any required premiums.
  • Dispute Resolution. Clear records are your best defense if an employee claims they were denied breaks.
  • Pattern Identification. Tracking reveals trouble spots (departments, shifts, etc.) where breaks are consistently missed, allowing you to address the root causes.

What about Rest Breaks?

California law doesn't require tracking rest breaks. However, if you choose to track them, you must ensure they are fully compliant and pay any necessary premiums.

PRO TIP: Timekeeping systems designed specifically for California compliance streamline tracking processes and significantly reduce risk. When choosing a tracking system, look for features like automatic alerts for missed or late breaks, premium pay calculation, and reporting tools to analyze trends and optimize your break policies over time.

Timeero: The Best App for California Meal Break Law Compliance 

Managing breaks in California doesn't have to be complicated with Timeero’s California Breaks Tracker tool.

Intuitive Mobile Tracking

Timeero’s mobile app makes it easy for your employees to keep track of their breaks and reduces your administrative burden:

timeero california break tracker
Employees log their meal and rest breaks from their phones, ensuring accurate, hassle-free tracking wherever they work.

PRO TIP: Track California meal breaks accurately - no rounding! Auto-deducting breaks seems convenient, but it can lead to fines if not done perfectly. Precise records are your best defense!

timeero time rounding settings

Prevent Missed Breaks

 Automated reminders help your team stay compliant and avoid costly penalties.

Accountability with Ease

timeero sinatures
Employees attest to their breaks with Daily Sign Off and digital signatures directly within the app, providing clear records for compliance.

Integration for Efficiency

timeero integrations
Connect Timeero with your payroll system and other workflows for streamlined operations.

California Overtime Functionality

california overtime settings
Timeero helps you tackle both break and overtime requirements with confidence.

Timeero also allows you to track your employees' whereabouts during their working hours as well as their business mileage which streamlines the reimbursement process.

Check out our Timeero review to learn more about the benefits this software can bring to your business besides compliance with California labor laws.

We’ve recently reviewed some of the best break-tracking apps on the market today, so check out the article to find out how they compare.

3. Policy and Communication

Start by establishing a clear company Meal and Rest Break Policy and make sure all employees have easy access to this document.

Equip managers with a thorough understanding of the policy, including how to handle exceptions, waivers, and potential conflicts with work demands. 

california break policy settings
Timeero enforces your employee meal break policy easily.

3. Accountability and Proactive Problem-Solving

Empower managers with the ability to proactively schedule breaks, treating them as an essential part of the workday. 

Hold managers accountable for ensuring their teams take full, compliant breaks. 

timeero reporting on breaks
Quickly generate reports.

Timeero's break reporting tools allow managers to spot trends and take proactive steps toward optimizing break compliance.

Establish a clear, consistent process for addressing violations, including both corrective action and if necessary, consequences. 

Be prepared for unforeseen circumstances or staffing shortages – work with managers in advance to develop compliant solutions like staggered breaks, temporary help, or adjusted workflows.

California Meal Break Law: Your Path to Proactive Compliance

Don't wait for a missed break to become a costly penalty. Timeero simplifies the process and gives you peace of mind.

If you’re ready to take the next step toward simplifying California break tracking and explore Timeero’s features, sign up for a free trial today.

California Meal Break Law: FAQ

 How many breaks do you get for working an 8-hour shift in California?

In California, non-exempt employees working an 8-hour shift are entitled to two paid 10-minute rest breaks and one unpaid 30-minute meal break.  However, some industries or job types may have specific exceptions to these general rules.

‍How many hours can an employee work without a break in California?

Under California break laws, an employee can work up to four hours without a rest break and five hours without a meal break. 

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