California's work break laws offer more to employees than most other state break laws. The labor laws in California mandate that an employee gets a paid, 10-minute rest period from work for every four hours (or a major fraction of four hours) he works. That is, he gets one rest break if his shift is between 3.5 and six hours, and additional 10-minute breaks if his shift is longer.
California break laws also require employers to provide a variety of unpaid work breaks during the day, including a 30-minute break for meals and reasonable unpaid lactation time for nursing mothers. These only apply to non-exempt employees, not exempt employees.
Which Employees Are Exempt?
Since California break laws only apply to non-exempt employees, it's important to know which employees are considered exempt. White-collar workers are exempt if they do work that is intellectual, managerial or creative, get to use their own judgments in performing their duties and earn a salary at least twice the California minimum wage for full-time work.
Other categories of exempt employees include independent contractors and unionized employees with collective bargaining agreements that cover work breaks.
Work Break Laws
Work breaks are time-off periods during an employee's work day. They provide an opportunity to step away from job responsibilities and eat a meal, rest and relax, or, for nursing mothers, lactate. Federal law regulates work breaks if an employer chooses to allow them, but it does not mandate them. On the other hand, Federal law allows every state to set work break laws for its residents.
Some states mandate work breaks and some states don't. California is one of the states that does, and has enacted some of the most expansive, employee work break benefits of any state. Some of the required breaks are paid, whereby an employer is not permitted to stop-the-clock. Others are unpaid.
Paid Rest Breaks
In California, an employer must offer periodic "rest and relaxation" breaks to its employees. These are moments in a workday when an employee can step away from a desk or factory line and think about other things. In California, rest breaks are carved out of the paid workday. If an employee is paid for eight hours of work, for example, those eight hours must include the applicable rest breaks.
The state's labor laws require that an employer provide every non-exempt employee with 10 minutes off, that is, a rest period of 10 minutes, in any day in which he works at least 3.5 hours. If his shift is six hours or more, he must be given two 10-minute breaks.
If an employee's shift is more than 10 hours, he gets three 10-minute breaks. If a shift is in excess of 14 hours, the employee is entitled to four breaks. After 18 hours of work in a shift, he gets five 10-minute work breaks.
Read More: California Labor Laws Relating to Breaks & Meal Periods
Rest Break Rules
The state labor laws and the regulations implementing them guarantee that an employee gets an uninterrupted 10-minute period each rest break. It cannot be infringed upon or broken up into two 5-minute breaks.
The employer is not allowed to require the employee to stay in the work area or even on the premises during these rest breaks. If it is convenient for the employee, she can step outside or even take a short walk. To the extent possible, a rest break should be taken in the middle of a shift, not when it is just beginning or when it is almost over.
While an employer cannot force an employee to work during a rest break or to skip a rest break, the employer is not required to force an employee to take the breaks either. An employee is free to skip her rest breaks as long as it's her choice and not under pressure from her employer.
Employee Meal Breaks
Under California law, the required employee work breaks for meals are longer than those that are just rest breaks. An employee must be allowed an uninterrupted 30 minutes for a meal if his shift that day is more than five hours. That meal break must begin before the fifth hour of work begins. He is entitled to a second, 30-minute meal break if his shift is more than 10 hours, a third if his shift is more than 15 hours and four if his shift is more than 20 hours.
Unlike rest breaks, meal breaks do not count as work time. This means that if an employee is scheduled to work an 8-hour shift and takes a meal break, the total time he will be in or near the workplace will be 8.5 hours. He cannot be forced to work during the meal break or be required to stay on the premises. Nor can work breaks and rest breaks be combined.
However, under California law, an employee can skip a meal break if he so chooses. For example, an employee who works a six-hour shift can skip the meal break to which he is entitled at five hours. If he takes his first meal break and doesn't work more than 12 hours, he can opt to skip the second meal break. He can also enter into an agreement with the employer to work during the meal break as long as he is paid for the time.
Lactation Breaks in California
California protects working mothers who breastfeed by requiring employers to offer lactation breaks. The purpose of these breaks is to allow the mother to express milk for her infant child by using a lactation machine.
If possible, a lactation break should run at the same time as a rest break so that it is a paid break. However, if the lactation break overruns the 10 minutes allotted for a rest break, the extra time need not be paid. The "reasonable" amount of time allowed for a lactation break will vary, depending on the proximity of the lactation area, whether a machine is provided and similar factors.
The employer must make an effort to find and allow the employee to use a dedicated lactation room so that the employee can lactate in private. This cannot be a toilet stall and should be located fairly near the employee's workspace.
Violations of the Work Break Laws
If employers violate the California break law requirements, they are subject to fines payable to the employee. For every day during which a meal break violation occurs, the employer must pay the employee one extra hour of pay. For every day during which a rest break violation occurs, the employer must also pay the employer an extra hour of regular pay. The employee can file a California Labor Board complaint or she can hire an attorney to file a complaint.
The same is true for an employee who doesn't get an appropriate lactation break. If an employer doesn't provide an employee with adequate break time to express milk or a suitable private area close to the work area for lactation, the employer can file a claim with the Labor Commissioner’s Bureau of Field Enforcement. After an inspection, that Office can issue a civil citation with a fine of $100.00 for each violation.
What if the employer retaliates against an employee for complaining to the Labor Commissioner? Any employee who is a victim of retaliation can file a retaliation claim with the Labor Commissioner’s Office within six months.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.