According to the US Department of Labor, there is no federal law which requires employers to provide their employees with rest or meal breaks during the work day. Some employers do offer short breaks, which usually last between five and twenty minutes. When doing so, federal law considers these breaks to be compensable work hours that are to be included in the sum of hours worked during the workweek.

Additionally, these are to be considered when determining if the employee worked any overtime hours. Meal periods, which generally last thirty minutes or more, serve a different purpose and as such are not considered to be work time and are not compensable.

Furthermore, the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) does not require employers to provide meal or rest breaks. Because of this lack of federal guidance, some states have implemented their own laws which require such breaks. Based on common practice, many employers provide their employees with some sort of a rest or lunch break, although this is usually unpaid and off the clock. Some states permit employers to choose between giving meal breaks or rest breaks, while other states only require employers to provide employees with restroom breaks.

California law on breaks requires employers to provide their employees with a meal break and a rest break during each shift. The state also requires the employer to pay the employee during some of these break times; however, employers are only required to provide an unpaid lunch break.

What Do The Meal and Rest Break Laws Say Specifically?

California meal and rest break laws currently state that non-exempt employees are to receive a thirty minute lunch or meal break, if they work more than five hours in one day. Work breaks in California, specifically a meal break, must be provided within the first five work hours of each work day.

Meaning, if an employee works six hours, they must receive their meal break within five hours of clocking in. Employees who are working more than ten hours in one day are to receive a second meal break, also lasting thirty minutes.

California rest break laws have determined that rest breaks are required for non-exempt employees who work for more than 3 ½ or more hours in a work day. Such employees are to receive ten minutes of rest for every four hours worked.

To reiterate, these laws only apply to non-exempt employees. White-collar exempt employees are required to meet all of the following requirements:

  • Spend more than half of their working time engaging in intellectual, managerial, or otherwise creative work;
  • Regularly and consistently exercise discretion and independent judgment, in terms of performing the aforementioned duties; and
  • Earn a monthly salary, which must be equivalent to at least twice the California minimum wage for full-time employment.

Additionally, California laws governing meal and rest breaks do not apply to any workers who fulfill the legal definition of independent contractors. The meal period requirements as determined by the California Labor Code do not apply to unionized employees, when they work in certain industries whose collective bargaining agreements have demanded meal breaks on a different schedule.

An example of this would be unionized employees who engage in the following work:

  • Construction occupations;
  • Commercial drivers;
  • Security officers;
  • Electrical or gas companies; and
  • The motion picture industry.

How Do Employers Commonly Violate Meal and Rest Break Laws in California?

One of the most common ways that meal and rest break laws in California are violated by employers would be by requiring employees on break to remain on-call. In general, employers are prohibited from requiring their employees to continue working or be on-call during meal and rest breaks. Doing so is considered to be the legal equivalent of denying a meal or rest break.

It is important to note that California employers are not required to ensure that you do not work during breaks. What this means is that if you voluntarily choose to work during a meal or rest break, you cannot hold your employer responsible for that.

On-duty meal breaks require the employee to work through their meal break. These are only permitted under the following circumstances:

  • The nature of the work would prevent the employee from being relieved of all duty for a meal break, such as an employee who is working security as the only employee in the building; and/or
  • The employee has agreed, through a written waiver, to be on-duty during their meal breaks. It is imperative to note that the employee may revoke this written waiver at any time, although they must do so in writing.

As such, if an employer requires on-duty meal breaks from an employee who has not agreed to the arrangement, the employer would be in violation of meal and rest break laws in California.

How Are Meal and Rest Law Violations Handled? What Remedies are Available?

You can sue your employer in California for not providing breaks. Additionally, California employers may face considerably harsh penalties for failing to provide non-exempt employees with state mandated meal and rest breaks. Such penalties are generally considerably large fines, in addition to providing the employee one extra hour of pay in addition to the employee’s regular paid hours.

If the employer does not provide a required rest break to a non-exempt employee, the employer must provide one hour of wages for each missed rest break. These extra wages are to be included on the employee’s next paycheck, after the breaks are denied. An employee who has been denied breaks has three years in which to claim the unpaid wages.

Unpaid wages can result in severe legal consequences, which include but may not be limited to:

  • A damages award, which is to be paid by the employer to the defendant as it is intended to make up for lost wages and other associated costs;
  • A court ordered change in company policies, such as replacing any meal and rest break policies that lead to the unpaid wages infraction;
  • Termination of the employer or supervisor who is found to be responsible for the unpaid wages; or
  • Various other business consequences, such as suspension of business operating licenses, civil fines, and other similar penalties.

The FLSA provides workers with some different remedies that you may be awarded in order to recover unpaid wages. If you are successful in your wage and hour claim against your employer, you may:

  • Recover all unpaid wages for hours worked;
  • Recover any unpaid overtime wages;
  • Receive punitive damages, which are also referred to as penalty damages; and
  • Have your attorney’s fees and other associated court costs covered by the defendant.

Some other remedies that could be available for an unpaid wages claim include, but may not be limited to:

  • Losses related to your claim, such as lost profits on a missed business deal;
  • Requiring your employer to change their payment and hour requirements in order to avoid future violations;
  • Investigations into the company’s general recordkeeping practices;
  • Terminating any responsible supervisors or managers; and/or
  • Reinstating the employee back to their previous position, if they were terminated in connection with the dispute and if they wish to do so.

Do I Need to Hire a California Employment Lawyer?

If you work in California and have questions regarding California law on breaks and lunches, you will need to work with an experienced local California employment lawyer. Because state laws vary widely in terms of meal and rest break laws, it is advised that you consult with an area attorney to ensure you receive the most accurate legal advice regarding your case.

An experienced local employment attorney can help you determine what breaks you are entitled to, if those breaks are to be paid, and what evidence you will need to bring a lawsuit against your employer for any violations against your rights. Finally, an attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.