It’s important for workers to be able to take breaks during the standard eight-hour workday. But who determines the number and length of these breaks and what flexibility do employees have? In today’s busy workplace, many employees end up working through their designated lunch breaks or not acknowledging the break at all, in order to get more done.
Often, shorter breaks are taken without even leaving the desk or office. It’s important to understand the options for breaks offered by the employer and the legal protections provided by federal and state laws to best plan one’s workday.
Federal Lunch Laws
Amazingly, there are no federal laws in place requiring employers to provide lunch/meal or break periods for employees, with the exception of breaks required for breastfeeding. That being said, for companies that do choose to offer breaks, there are federal laws detailing how these breaks should be offered and how they should be calculated against an employees working hours.
These laws apply to nonexempt employees – those employees who earn at least the minimum federal wage for every hour they work. Employees that earn salaries, rather than an hourly wage are exempt employees, and break policies for these types of employees are determined by company policy.
Break and Meal Period Laws
Employers that offer break rest periods of 20 minutes or less – not breaks for meals – are required to pay employees for their time on break. These count as work hours during the week and also are included in the number of hours worked to determine whether overtime charges apply.
Meal breaks of 30 minutes and longer, however, can quickly become complicated. An employer is not required to pay employees for a lunch break if the employee is free to do whatever he likes in that 30-minute period.
However, in situations where employees work through lunch breaks, are expected to be on call during the lunch break or are responsible for work-related tasks while taking their lunch break, the lunch break period should be paid as well. This can set up companies with unexpected and unintended overtime costs if the general daily business makes it impossible for employees to take a true unpaid lunch break.
Lunch and Break Laws in California
Under California labor laws, employees working for five hours or more are entitled to an unpaid 30-minute lunch break during that time. The employee has the right to waive that meal break if the workday will be no longer than six hours in total. This is done at the employee’s discretion, rather than the employer’s.
Employees working more than 10 hours in a given day are entitled to two unpaid 30-minute meal breaks. The employee may waive one of these breaks assuming she has taken the other and will not work more than 12 hours in that given day. Since these meal breaks are unpaid, employees may choose to waive these breaks to shorten their work day. For example, a 10-hour day with two 30-minute meal breaks will actually take 11 hours of that employee’s personal schedule, despite being paid only for 10 hours.
California also requires rest periods of at least 10 minutes for every four hours worked. These rest periods are paid time and are to be counted as time worked. Employees who work less than 3.5 hours in a given day have no protected paid break time. For example, an employee with an eight-hour workday would expect to receive 20 total minutes of paid break time alongside a 30-minute unpaid meal break.
California Lunch Law for Salaried Employees
In California, these labor laws apply to nonexempt employees only, not to exempt employees receiving salary. Salaried employees usually spend at least half of their time doing managerial, creative or other intellectual work; exercise independent discretion and judgment when working; and earn a monthly salary of at least twice the California minimum wage.
For exempt employees, break and meal times are negotiated with the company according to company policy and best practices. These labor laws also do not apply to unionized workers who have agreed to meal and rest breaks as part of their collective bargaining contracts. Such unionized workers follow the schedules outlined in their labor contracts.
Compensation for Missed Lunch Breaks
Lunch breaks are required in California, unless specifically waived by the employee and noted by the employer. California has lunch penalty laws that companies need to be aware of. This means that an employer cannot expect an employee to stay on call or otherwise continue working through her lunch break.
There are exceptions for times when the nature of a job requires the meal to be taken while still on call, but an employee who chooses to work through his lunch break as an independent decision is not entitled to any compensation for a missed lunch break. Likewise, an employee who chooses to waive a lunch break cannot then request to be paid for that lunch break or expect compensation for a missed break.
However, in cases where an employee has been denied a meal or a rest break, she has the right to be compensated by her employer. The employer will owe the employee one hour of wages for every break that was denied.
Company Policy and Forced Breaks
Because the penalties for missed breaks can be substantial, companies are allowed to adopt policies that force employees to take their breaks. Employers can set schedules and time clocks to require employees to take rest breaks and meal breaks at certain times and at set intervals, to ensure that they are in compliance with California's labor laws.
This assumes that employees are not pressured by management to keep working through these breaks. That, of course, is against the labor laws and can constitute interference that can lead to requiring compensation.
Paid Meal Breaks
In California, it’s expected that the 30-minute meal break period is an unpaid period. However, certain situations and job responsibilities can be exceptions to the rule. For example, a security guard expected to continue monitoring an area or expected to be on call during his meal should be given paid lunch time as they are still on duty during this meal break.
In addition, employees required to attend mandatory functions during their lunch time must be paid, since attendance is mandatory. In these cases it should be made clear by company policy what time counts as lunch breaks and that breaks will be considered paid and count as worked hours against that employee’s weekly number of hours, due to the nature of the job and its requirements.
Laws for Specific Sectors
Likewise, certain specific sectors of industry such as health care, construction, utilities and other areas where work can be sporadically intense, demanding or otherwise difficult may have labor laws that specifically apply to situations in that particular industry.
For example, doctors and nurses often work exceptionally long days and may be denied scheduled breaks by on-site emergencies. These employees may be entitled to additional break times, paid or unpaid, as per industry regulations and company policy. Employees in these fields should contact their company’s human resources department and consult external legal advice to understand their rights.