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California Break Laws: What You Need To Know and Do

Understanding California break laws is essential if you're running a business.
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California is known for some of the country's most generous 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 they are paid. 

But these rules can also be complex and confusing, as they may differ depending on the type and duration of the work.

If you are an employer or an employee in California, you must understand your rights and responsibilities under these laws. 

That’s why we have compiled this comprehensive and user-friendly guide explaining everything you need to know about California break laws.

What Are the Break and Lunch Laws in California?

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

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 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). For example, they can take care of personal matters or spend it on whatever they desire. 

Typically, a meal break isn't paid and must be uninterrupted. So, 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 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. California employers 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 lunch break law also provides a second meal break for employees who work more than ten hours a day. 

Another thing to consider: meal breaks must be taken before the end of the fifth hour of a shift. An employee has the right to leave the premises or stay on-site, according to their choice. 

California Lunch Break Laws: Timing of the Breaks

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

California Meal Break Law Violations

Making California employees 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 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 employees a 10-minute rest break for every four hours worked

According to California break laws, 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-hour period worked in a day (or a major fraction thereof). 

If possible, rest breaks should be taken in the middle of each 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 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:

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

Like California overtime laws, break laws in this state apply to non-exempt employees only. 

So, let’s briefly remind ourselves which employees can be classified as exempt in the state of California.

What Is an Exempt Employee?

To be classified as exempt, employees must meet the following requirements (according to the Labor Code 515 — Exemptions):

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

Are There Exceptions to the Break Law in California?

Besides exempt employees, California break laws do not 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 work duties during the break period
  • Release control of their activities
  • Enable a reasonable opportunity to have an uninterrupted break (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?

Generally speaking, the answer to this question is yes, but there are some nuances to consider. First of all, this rule only applies to non-exempt employees who work a standard 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 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. The second meal break can be waived if the first meal break is taken. It's not unusual for employees who work between 10 and 12 hours to refuse to stick around for their second meal period. 

Both parties must 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 the California meal break law defines it. 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. If so, 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 unpaid meal breaks in California, on-site meal breaks are paid. 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 the following:

  • A suitable place to eat
  • A paid lunch break

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

However, before opting for an on-duty meal period agreement, employers should check whether they meet all the requirements. 

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.” This means that the employee should get one extra hour of pay at their regular hourly rate for each workday that a meal break violation occurs.

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 break penalties are 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 additional hour of pay 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.

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

California Break Laws: Compliance Summary 

Violating California break laws can have negative consequences on your business. The cost of not tracking your employees’ breaks 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. 

Also, ensure you regularly audit your systems for meal and rest break compliance. 

Besides these steps, using a California break laws compliant time tracking system is the most effective way to minimize your chances of violations. 

We’ve recently reviewed some of the best break-tracking apps on the market today, so check out the article to find out what you should look for.

How Can Timeero Help My Business Stay Compliant With California Break Laws?

Timeero is a software solution that can help you track and manage your employees’ hours and breaks easily. 

The California breaks tracker is designed to help you stay compliant with California break laws by:

  • Enforcing California Breaks Policy to your employees.

california break policy settings

  • Allowing your employees to record their meal and rest breaks wherever they are using the Timeero mobile app.
Timeero mobile time clock app

  • Asking your employees to attest to their breaks using Daily Sign-Off forms.
timeero daily sign off form

  • Sending you alerts when an employee is non-compliant with the break laws or fails to certify their breaks.

  • Generate reports and export data for payroll and audits.

  • Integrate with payroll software and other tools.

Timeero is also equipped with California Overtime functionality, enabling you to comply with California Overtime Rules

And, if you’re managing field employees, you’ll be happy to know that Timeero also allows you to keep track of your employees' whereabouts during their working hours and business mileage, streamlining the reimbursement process.

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

FAQ: California Break Laws

What are the break requirements in California?

According to California break laws, non-exempt workers are entitled to a 30-minute uninterrupted meal break if they work more than 5 hours in a workday. They also have a right to a 10-minute uninterrupted rest break for every 4 hours they work. During these breaks, they must be relieved of all work-related duties.

How many breaks per day are required in California?

The number of breaks required per workday depends on the number of working hours. For example, if an employee works more than 5 hours in a workday, they are entitled to a 30-minute meal break. If they work more than 10 hours in a day, they have a right to a second meal break of at least 30 minutes. In addition to meal breaks, employees are entitled to a 10-minute rest break for every 4 hours worked.

Does California require 10-minute breaks?

Yes. A 10-minute rest break is required for every 4 hours worked (or the major portion of this period).

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