California Meal Break Law Explained

California Meal Break Law Explained

California is known for its extensive labor laws that protect workers’ rights, and meal break laws are no exception. It is important for employers and employees to understand these laws to prevent any violations and ensure employees receive adequate time for meals.

In this blog post, we will discuss California’s meal break laws, penalties for employers who violate them, and a case study that illustrates their importance.

Are you constantly told to skip your meal time?

Meal Break Laws in California

California’s Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Orders requires employers to provide employees with a reasonable opportunity to enjoy a meal period of not less than 30 minutes if they work more than five hours in a day.

This break is an uninterrupted 30-minute break. You usually won’t get paid for it, unless your boss gives you more work to do. 

Even though it’s called a meal break, you don’t have to use it just for eating, and your boss doesn’t have to give you food. While you’re on a meal break, you can leave your work area, do personal tasks, or stay where you are – you can decide.

If the employee works for over 10 hours in a day, there is a second 30-minute meal period requirement. These meal periods must be given at reasonable intervals and provided no later than the end of the fifth or tenth hour of work, depending on the total number of hours worked during a day.

Meal Break Waiver

If an employee works for six hours or less, both the employer and the employee can agree to skip the meal break. However, if the employee works more than six hours, they cannot skip the meal break.

These mutual agreements don’t have to be written down; just talking about it is enough. Still, it’s usually a good idea for employers to get a written agreement.

Duty Meal Breaks

In certain cases, employers might not have to let employees stop working completely during a meal break. These are called on-duty meal breaks, which are common for security officers and all-night convenience store keepers.

During an on-duty meal period, employees still need to be paid, but they won’t get the usual penalty for missing a meal break.

On-duty meal breaks are allowed only when:

  1. The type of job makes it impossible for an employee to take a complete break, and
  2. Both the employee and employer agree in writing to have a paid meal break while still working.

The written agreement should also mention that the employee can cancel it whenever they want.

california meal break law

On-Site Meals

Normally, employees should be allowed to go away from their workplace during their meal break, if they want to. However, if an employee has to take their meal break at their workplace (like during on-duty meal breaks), the employer needs to give them a proper place to eat.

Similarly, if a meal break happens during a shift that starts or ends between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., the employer should provide a way to get hot food or drinks or a way to heat food or keep their drinks. The employer should also offer a suitable covered area where food or drinks can be consumed.

Exempt Employees and Industry Exemptions

Exempt employees have the right to take meal breaks but not rest breaks. Typically, an employee needs to meet three conditions to be considered exempt:

  1. Their salary must be at least twice the state’s minimum wage or regular rate for full-time employment.
  2. Their main tasks must involve administrative, executive, or professional responsibilities.
  3. The work they do must require them to use their own judgment and make independent decisions.

A nonexempt worker who has a shift longer than five hours per day is allowed to have a meal break that lasts at least 30 minutes. Nonexempt employees who work less than three and a half hours don’t have the right to take rest breaks.

Additionally, California has exceptions for specific industries regarding meal and rest breaks. These industries include healthcare, construction, commercial drivers, union employees, public agencies, the motion picture industry, publicly-owned electric utilities, and security guards.

This list is not complete, and these exemptions can be intricate. If you’re unsure about your job status and your rights concerning meal and rest breaks, it’s wise to seek advice from an experienced employment lawyer.

Lactation Break

California employers must allow female employees to take breaks for expressing breast milk for their infant child. Ideally, these breaks should align with the employee’s other scheduled breaks. If the lactation break doesn’t match the other breaks, the employer doesn’t have to pay for that break.

Employers should try to give employees a private space near their work area to express milk. However, this space cannot be a bathroom stall.

Employers are excused from providing lactation breaks only if doing so would seriously disrupt their business operations. Yet, this is a high standard to meet, and in most cases, lactation breaks should be given.

Not providing a lactation break has serious consequences. Employers may be fined $100.00 as a civil penalty for each violation.

Are Rest breaks and Meal Breaks Same?

No. Rest break and meal break are two different ways for an employee to take a break from their role. 

Rest breaks are paid 10-minute rest breaks that employees can take for a major fraction of their daily work time or typically, every four-hour shift. It is not synonymous with the meal break law, and therefore employers should be aware of the distinct regulations surrounding each break.

Penalties For Missed Meal Breaks

When an employer doesn’t give an employee the meal break or rest period they’re legally supposed to, the employer has to pay the employee an extra hour’s worth of pay at the regular hourly rate. 

If the employer misses giving multiple rest breaks or meal periods, the employee can earn one extra hour for each missed rest period and one extra hour for each missed meal break during a workday.

For example, an non-exempt employee is working a seven-hour shift. Unfortunately, their employer fails to provide them with lunch breaks. Even though they missed two rest breaks and one meal period, they are only entitled to two extra hours of pay.⁠

When an employee has the break rights, the employer has options:

  • Follow the law and give the proper meal break time.
  • If the law allows it and the employee agrees, skip the break.
  • Pay the one-hour penalty for the missed break.

If an employee decides not to take a provided meal break or rest period, they can’t get a break penalty even if the employer knew they skipped it. But the employer can’t force or push employees to skip breaks – if they do, the employee could still get the penalty.

For instance, if an employee has a chance to take a 30-minute meal break during their seven-hour shift but chooses not to, they can’t ask for a one-hour penalty for that missed meal break.

Remember, even if an employee skips a meal break and can’t get an extra hour’s pay, they still need to be paid for the work they did.

Compensation for Employees Denied of their Meal Breaks

Employees who have been denied their right to take rest breaks or meal breaks have three main choices:

  • Try to solve the problem informally with their employer.
  • Take legal action by filing a lawsuit in court.
  • Submit a wage claim to California’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE).

Wage claims might make things easier for employees, reducing their risks and expenses. The DLSE can also make employers pay fines to employees.

The best way to resolve a dispute over meal and rest breaks depends on the employee’s specific situation. It’s usually a good idea to talk to an employment attorney before making a decision.

Employees should remember that there are specific deadlines for filing wage claims or lawsuits. Generally, a claim or lawsuit must be submitted within three years of the alleged violation of a meal break.

Consult with a California Employment Lawyer

California’s labor laws, including meal break laws, are in place to protect workers from being taken advantage of. Employers must follow these laws to avoid penalties, and employees should be aware of their rights to ensure they are treated fairly.

Labor Law Advocates is dedicated to protecting these rights while holding employers accountable for their unlawful deeds. Understanding California’s meal break laws is essential for both employers and employees, and we hope this guide has given you a better understanding of how they work.

Consult with the most qualified employment attorney in California for legal advice today. Speak with one of the experts at Labor Law Advocates for a free consultation.

We are available 24/7. Call us anytime at (424)-688-3632.


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By submitting this form, I consent to receiving text messages and emails from Labor Law Advocates. I also acknowledge that contacting Labor Law Advocates through this website does not create an attorney-client relationship, and any information I send is not protected by the attorney-client privilege.