California meal break laws are labor laws intended to protect employees. These statutes are found in the California Labor Code and require that employees who work more than five hours in one day must get a 30-minute unpaid meal break, while those who work 10 hours are entitled to two breaks. However, there are exceptions, and employees can waive a meal break in certain circumstances.
California Meal Laws
The legislature enacted California meal break laws to be sure that employees have time to eat a meal every so often during the workday. Employees who fit into the category of “non-exempt” qualify for this break, which usually include those who are paid either by the hour or the piece and perform work not considered “white-collar.”
California law requires that an employer give every non-exempt employee a 30-minute period to eat a meal if she is working a shift longer than five hours. An employee who works longer than 10 hours in a shift is entitled to two separate meal breaks.
This is unpaid time, and it belongs to the employee. The employer cannot require the employee to be on call, answer phones or do any other work during this time. During the break, the employee must be free to leave the building if she desires.
Exempt vs. Non-Exempt Employees
In California, only some employees legally receive meal breaks: employees who do not fall into one of the “exempt” categories. “Non-exempt” employees are also those who get protection under the minimum wage laws and who are entitled to rest breaks.
What is the exempt / non-exempt employee distinction? At its core, the law is trying to distinguish between white-collar salaried workers and those paid by the hour or by the piece. These employees usually make less money, and their job is typically less secure than exempt employees.
The law defining exempt employees is lengthy, complex and detailed. Generally, in order to qualify as exempt, an employee’s job duties must involve intellectual, managerial or creative work. His job must require him to exercise discretion and independent judgment, and his salary must be at least twice the amount he would be earning if working full-time at the state minimum wage. Independent contractors and some unionized workers are also exempt.
California Meal Penalty Waiver
Since mealtime is not paid, an employee may not want to take his meal breaks. Sometimes, she may prefer getting home an hour earlier after a 10-hour shift to taking meal breaks.
Can she waive the meal breaks? Sometimes, but not always. California law sets out exactly when the waiver is legal and when it isn’t.
If an employee’s shift is no more than six hours, she is permitted to waive her meal break under California law. If her shift is longer than 10 hours, she is entitled to a second meal break, and she can waive this second 30-minute break if she meets these qualifications:
- She took the first meal break, and
- Her shift is no longer than 12 hours.
Examples of Meal Breaks and Waivers
It’s easier to grasp when California law requires meal breaks and when the employee can waive them by looking at examples. Let’s look at an example of John Doe who works for minimum wage and has shifts that vary in length.
If he works:
- 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., he doesn’t get a meal break.
- 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., he is entitled to take one 30-minute break, but he can waive it if his total shift is no more than six hours.
- 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., he gets two 30-minute breaks. He can waive the second if he takes the first, but he cannot waive both.
- 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., he cannot waive either meal break.
Employer Duties Under the Meal Break Law
While an employer cannot deny a worker a meal break to which she is entitled under the law, the law does not give the employer an obligation to prevent the employee from working.
The California Supreme Court rules that once a meal break is provided, the employer doesn’t have a duty to police the breaks to guarantee that the employee is not working. If an employee voluntarily, without any nudge from management, takes work with her on a meal break, it is perfectly legal.
Written Agreement Waiving Meal Break
Sometimes, it is particularly difficult for an employee to get 30 minutes away from work. For example, if an employee is a security guard and his fellow guard is out sick, he cannot take a meal break without leaving the area unprotected.
The employer and employee in this situation can agree that the employee will take an “on-duty” meal break. He remains on the job and doesn’t go “off the clock” in terms of pay. The agreement must be in writing, and it can be revoked by the employee at any time.
California Rest Breaks
Don’t confuse California meal break laws with the state’s rest break laws. These are two separate rights given to non-exempt California employees. They are cumulative, not alternative, and they cannot overlap. That means that an employer must allow an employee to take both meal breaks and rest breaks.
What are rest breaks? In addition to giving an employee 30-minute unpaid meal breaks during her shift, a California employer must also give her paid rest breaks, a time in which she can simply relax and disconnect from work. She cannot be required to stay at work during this period, nor can she be required to do anything work related such as answering telephones or holding down the office.
Rest breaks are 10 minutes long. An employee gets one 10-minute rest period for every four hours she works in a shift. And the four-hour minimum is not set in stone. The courts have ruled that an employee is eligible for a rest break when she works a “substantial fraction” of four hours in a shift. This has been held to include a shift of 3.5 hours.
Penalties Under California Break Laws
What is an employee to do if her employer doesn’t allow her to take a meal break? Or simply refuses to recognize the right to meal breaks? Under California law, a penalty applies. An employer who doesn’t allow an employee to take meal breaks owes that employee one hour of pay for each break denied to her.
This is also the case for every rest break the employee is prevented from taking. This may not sound like a lot, but consider that a year’s employment is about 250 workdays. An employer denied either one meal break or one rest break each day for a year would be entitled to 250 hours of extra pay. At a $15 an hour rate, the penalty would put $3,750 in her pocket.
An employee can file a claim with the California Labor Board or hire a lawyer and sue in court. Many firms specialize in labor law and put together class action cases when employees at the same company are denied the benefits to which they are entitled under California labor laws.