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California Break Laws

Understanding California break laws is essential if you're running a business.
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Under California break laws, employers have a legal duty to provide employees with breaks throughout a shift. 

This law includes meal and rests break periods to ensure workers have decent working conditions. It's important to note that they aren't necessarily paid breaks, but they are legally required by the law.

Generally speaking, the length of the employee's shift determines the number of breaks. But there is more to this law that you need to know if you're running a business in California. 

That's why we've dug deep to create a comprehensive yet easy-to-understand guide that covers everything you need to know about California labor laws on breaks.

What Are the Break and Lunch Laws in California?

Before going in-depth with California break laws, we'll set the foundation first and explain 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 they work. It's important to note that the employees aren't required to have lunch during this time (as determined in the Brinker trial). For example, they can take care of personal matters instead or spend it on whatever they desire. 

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

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 a section on on-duty meal breaks.

Meal Break Requirements in California

Non-exempt employees in California are entitled to meal breaks when they work shifts that exceed a certain number of hours. So do the majority of exempt employees. Employers in California have a legal duty to permit employees who work more than five hours a day a 30-minute meal break. 

It's important to note that the California meal break law also provides another 30-minute meal break for employees who work more than ten hours in a day

There is another thing to consider: meal breaks have to be taken before the end of the fifth hour of a shift. After that, an employee has the right to leave the premises or stay on-site, according to their choice. 

Lunch Break Laws in California: Timing of the Breaks

To eliminate any uncertainty regarding lunch break laws in California, let's closely examine one example. If an employee's workday begins at 9 a.m., their meal break would be like this:

california break laws

California Meal Break Law Violations

Making a non-exempt employee work through lunch to get the job done (for example, eat while they finish work-related tasks) is considered a meal break violation. So is being "on-call" or on duty. To provide a lawful meal break, your staff must have an uninterrupted time while they are off duty.  

What Is a Rest Break?

California labor regulations also require rest breaks. For example, non-exempt employees in California are entitled to two paid 10-minute rest breaks during an 8-hour workday. In other words, an employer has a legal duty to permit its employees a 10-minute rest break for every four hours worked. 

According to break and lunch laws in California, they have to be counted as time worked, and therefore they must be paid. 

Rest Break Requirements in California

According to the California Code Regulations, tit. 8, §§ 11010⁠–⁠11150, subd. 12, break periods must be at least ten minutes for every four hours worked in a day (or a major fraction thereof). 

If possible, they should be taken in the middle of a four-hour work period and away from the work area. However, the wording isn't exact, so some flexibility is allowed when the rest break can be taken if there are practical considerations.

Employees who work less than 3 ½ (three and a half) hours a day aren't entitled to rest periods (under the above-mentioned Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, §§ 11010⁠–⁠11150, subd. 12).

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:

california break laws chart


Which Employees Are Entitled to Meal and Rest Breaks in California?

Same as California overtime laws, break laws in this state apply to non-exempt employees only. So, which employees are classified as exempt in the state of California? Let's take a look! 

What Is a Non-Exempt Employee

They must meet the following requirements (according to the Labor Code 515 — Exemptions):

  • A minimum salary. Individuals need to earn a monthly wage of at least double the California minimum wage for full-time employment to be classified as exempt employees.
  • White-collar duties. The employee's primary duties must include executive, administrative or professional tasks. 
  • Independent judgment. Use of discretion and independent judgment have to be regularly exercised in performing primary duties.

Independent Contractors and Unionized Employees

There is another group that California break laws don't apply to independent contractors.

Also, unionized employees in specific industries may have meals on a different schedule. If they have a collective bargaining agreement, it overrides the meal period requirements of the California Labor Code. 

Typically, these industries include construction occupations, commercial drivers, security officers, healthcare, electrical or gas companies, a local publicly owned electric utility, and the motion picture industry. 

Staying Compliant With California Break Laws: The Employer's Do and Dont's

To stay compliant with California break laws, employers in this state have to:

  • Relieve employees from all duties during the break period
  • Release control of their activities
  • Enable a reasonable opportunity to have an uninterrupted break (either a 30-minute lunch break or a 10-minute rest break)

On the flip side, to stay compliant with California meal and rest breaks, employers in this state can't:

  • Discourage employees from having lunch or interrupting them while taking meals
  • Offer incentives to skip meals
  • Create a culture in which skipping breaks is encouraged

To sum up, employers are legally obliged to provide proper breaks. Still, they aren't responsible for ensuring employees use these breaks.  

Does the 8-Hour Work Day Include Lunch in California?

The answer to this question is yes in general, but let's dive deeper into this subject. For starters, this rule applies to non-exempt employees and a typical 8-hour shift: 

During the 8-hour workday, non-exempt employees in California are entitled to one unpaid 30-minute meal break before the end of the fifth hour of work.

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. To help you navigate the rules around meals and rest in California, we've created a chart that summarizes meal and rests break laws in this state:

california meal and break laws


California Labor Laws on Breaks: Waiving Right to Breaks

According to California break laws, employees in this state can waive their right to take breaks they are entitled to under certain circumstances

Waiving Right to a Meal Break

Break and lunch laws in California (CA Labor Code § 512) allow employees to waive their meal break if they are working 6 hours in a day or less. Still, an employer can't legally make their teams do so. 

Also, those who work 10 hours or more are entitled to a second break. If the first break was taken, the second one can be waived. It's not unusual for employees who work between 10 and 12 hours to refuse to stick around for their second meal period. 

It's necessary for both parties to consent to the waiver.

Waiving Right to a Rest Break

Employees can skip rest breaks if they choose to do so. Still, in an already mentioned Brinker trial, it was determined that employers couldn't encourage or pressure them to waive rest periods. 

On-Duty Meal Breaks

We've discussed the off-duty meal breaks up until now, and we've mentioned that employers are required to allow a reasonable opportunity for their workers to take uninterrupted meal breaks. At the same time, they are relieved of all duties. However, there are exceptions to this rule. 

The nature of some jobs can make it difficult or impossible to take a proper meal break as it's defined by the California meal break law. For instance, a security guard working alone or a single employee in an all-night convenience store can't leave their job to take lawful breaks.

In many cases, employers can require their teams to stay on-site during their lunch breaks. IIf this is the case, an employer can offer an on-duty meal break (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, §§ 11010⁠–⁠11150, subd. 11.). 

What Is an On-Duty Meal Break?

Compared to the regular meal breaks in California, on-site ones are paid breaks. Aside from that, there must be agreed to in writing by both parties - the employee and the employer. The worker has to be able to revoke the agreement at all times.  

On-Duty Meal Break Requirements

If specific job circumstances require employees to take their meal breaks on-site, an employer has to provide:

  • A suitable place to eat
  • A paid lunch break

The latter applies even if the employee is relieved of their duties. 

In case an employee missed their on-duty meal break, they can't collect premium payment for it.

What Is the California Meal Penalty?

Meal breaks are mandatory if your non-exempt employee has worked a long enough shift. Employees who deny meal breaks or rest breaks to their employees can be penalized under California's Meal break law. 

If employees have been unlawfully denied their breaks, they are entitled to additional pay (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, §§ 11010⁠–⁠11150, subd. 11.).

This additional payment is called "premium pay" - for every workday, there's been a meal break violation. As a result, an employee is entitled to one extra hour of pay at their regular hourly rate.

If an employer doesn't pay the premium pay, there are a few options that an employee can resort to:

  • Handle the dispute informally - directly with the employer
  • File a wage claim with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement 
  • File a lawsuit against the employer

How Much Is a Meal Penalty in California?

How are meal penalties calculated? If lunch break laws are violated, the penalties are calculated per team member for every 30 minutes of elapsed break time

To help you get a clear picture of how much are break penalties in California, take a look at the overview below:

  • California meal penalty = 1 hour's wages for each day without a meal break
  • California rest penalty = 1 hour's wages for each day without a rest break

Employers have to compensate their employees for missed meals or rest breaks by paying additional premium payments that must be included in the employee's next paycheck.


California Break Laws: Compliance Summary 

Violating California break laws can have negative consequences on your business. The financial implications on your business can be severe, as compensating your teams for missed breaks can quickly add up. Aside from that, following California labor laws on breaks is a way to create a positive working environment, enable your workforce to rest and recover, and retain your top talent. 

To achieve this, having up-to-date policies is a must. So is training your supervisors and employees to apply these policies and follow the rules of the California Labor Code. 

In the end, make sure you regularly audit your systems for the meal and rest break compliance. This way, you'll minimize the chances of any violations and stay compliant. 

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