Classroom Teacher Break Laws in California

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California labor law requires both rest breaks and meal breaks for nonexempt employees. Exempt employees are not protected under these laws, nor are they entitled to rely on overtime and minimum wage laws. Figuring out whether a particular employee is exempt or nonexempt can be a confusing and complex assignment.

Are California teachers exempt or nonexempt? The truth is anything but simple: some are exempt and some are nonexempt. Those that are nonexempt must be given both rest and lunch breaks just like all nonexempt employees in California. Those that are exempt are only entitled to whatever work breaks their contract gives them.

Nonexempt Employee Protections

California protects nonexempt employees with a variety of employment laws. These employees are entitled to rely on the state's minimum wage law, setting a minimum hourly wage that a California worker must receive whether they are paid by the hour or are salaried. Currently, the minimum wage for employers with more than 25 employees is $14 an hour, while for smaller employees, it is $13 an hour. And California allows cities and counties to establish a minimum wage higher than the state's minimum wage; many have, including all of the largest cities in the state.

In addition, nonexempt employees are entitled to overtime pay in California when they work long hours. This is either time-and-a-half of their regular hourly wage or double their regular hourly wage. Overtime must be paid for any hours they are asked to work in one day that exceeds their normal schedule.

That applies to more than an 8-hour workday in a regular schedule, or more than 10 hours in a work day for those on a four-day "alternative" workweek schedule. Overtime is also required for working more than a 40-hour week and working more than six consecutive days.

California Employee Break Requirements and Lunchtime Rules

California labor laws also mandate that an employee is entitled to an on-the-clock (paid) rest break of 10 minutes during a shift of between three 1/2 and four hours. The employee must get two 10-minute work breaks if the shift is eight hours or more.

The state also mandates unpaid meal breaks of 30 minutes when an employee works more than five hours in a day. Those working a shift of 10 or more hours are entitled to two meal breaks. This duty-free lunch period is personal time; the employee is free to leave the worksite and cannot be required to perform any work.

Exempt Employee Protections

Those categories of employees who are exempted from the protection of the labor laws are not entitled to rely on these protections. Exempt employees are generally paid more than nonexempt workers and are often working in more important positions with more bargaining power.

The California employment laws allow an employer and an employee (or their union) to set the terms of their employment contract. Exempt employees usually work in administrative, executive or professional jobs or are covered by all-inclusive union contracts.

What Is an Exempt Employee?

State laws and regulations define the characteristics of exempt employees. Generally, to be exempt an employee must work in an administrative, executive or professional capacity. To meet that test, a worker must work full time, at least 40 hours a week, and either:

  • Be engaged in work which is primarily intellectual, managerial or creative, and which requires exercise of discretion and independent judgment, or
  • Be licensed or certified by the State of California and work in one of these recognized professions: law, medicine, dentistry, optometry, architecture, engineering, teaching or accounting.

In addition, the employee must earn a monthly salary equivalent to at least two times the state minimum wage for full-time employment (40 hours a week). At the current minimum wage of $14 times 2,080 work hours in a year, that means that the employee must earn at least $58,240 a year. Note that this will be the standard used even if the employee works in a city like Los Angeles that mandates a higher minimum wage. For the purposes of the exempt employee definition, the state minimum wage is used.

If any of these elements are not met, the employee is not an exempt employee for the purposes of California's overtime laws.

Teachers as Exempt Employees

Most full-time teachers meet the requirements to be exempt employees and are classified as such. That is, most teachers in the state are education professionals, hold a teaching certificate issued by the state, and earn a salary that is over $2,240 a month.

Teachers in this category are generally members of a union that bargains with the state to set attractive salaries and reasonable working conditions in the schools. These terms become part of the union contract. Unions will insist on reasonable break periods for teachers, as well as emergency time off.

However, some teachers in the private sector may not hold teaching credentials from California. These private school teachers can be classified as exempt under a different set of requirements. That is, they are considered exempt if they teach full time, instruct students in kindergarten or any grade 1 through 12, earn at least twice California's minimum wage, and hold a BA degree from an accredited institution of higher learning, or a teaching credential from any other state.⁠

Break Time for Part-time Teachers

Given that California's labor regulations about exemptions specifically apply only to full-time employees, anyone working less than full-time as a teacher may be nonexempt. That means that part-time or substitute teachers may have rights under California's break laws. It depends on how many hours they work in a "shift."

If a part-time or substitute teacher is asked to take over for one or two periods in a day, neither the meal break laws nor the rest break laws will apply. That's because each has a prerequisite period they must work before the right to a break kicks in. The only nonexempt employees entitled to a work break are those with work shifts of at least five hours. For rest breaks, they must work a substantial part of a four-hour shift.