All states have some type of labor laws, but California has some of the strongest laws in the nation. California employees, like those in all states, are covered by federal wage and hour laws. But in California’s case, state law offers employees much greater benefits in terms of minimum wage, overtime laws and work break laws.
Federal vs. State Labor Laws
Both the federal government and state governments enact laws. In some areas of the law, the federal government preempts the field and prevents any overlapping state laws. In these areas, federal laws provide exclusive regulation. But federal preemption is not the rule in employment law matters.
In labor laws, both federal and state laws offer benefits to workers, and an employee can rely on whichever law provides the better benefits, advantages or protections. California employees are fortunate to have very strong state labor laws. They offer far greater protection in minimum wage, overtime wages and work breaks than federal law.
Understanding Exempt and Nonexempt Status
Neither federal nor California labor law protects all employees. Rather, these laws are intended to aid average working people rather than CEOs or professionals with high salaries.
Many labor laws have exemptions, and those who meet the terms of the exemptions are exempt from the protection of the law. This applies to federal and California state minimum wage limits, overtime benefits, and meal breaks/rest break regulations. Employees who are exempt cannot rely on these laws. Those who do not fall into the exemptions – “nonexempt” workers – are the ones who qualify for these legal protections.
The law presumes all employees to be nonexempt. That means that an employer has the burden of proving that an employee fits into an exemption. If there is any doubt, the courts treat the employee as nonexempt and protected by the labor laws.
Exempt Categories of Employees
The main group of exempt employees in federal and California state labor law includes “white collar” workers, those employees who have executive, professional or administrative duties. To be exempt, a white collar employee must receive a salary rather than be paid by the hour, with a monthly salary that exceeds full-time minimum wage pay. She must be required to exercise discretion and independent judgment on the job.
Another category of exemptions is for employees who earn more than half of their monthly income from commissions instead of salary. These workers are exempt if they make over 1.5 times the minimum wage, calculated on a monthly basis, and meet certain other requirements.
Outside salespersons are exempt as well if they spend most of their time on the road selling products. Unionized workers are exempt if they are covered by a collective bargaining agreement that specifies the wages, work hours and working conditions of the employee, including overtime and a salary at least 30 percent higher than California’s minimum wage.
Minimum Wage Laws: Federal
When it comes to minimum wage laws, the federal government provides a minimum wage; each state also provides a minimum wage, and some cities do as well. An employee receives the highest of these employment benefits. This is particularly important to California employees, since the state minimum wage is much higher than the federal wage, but the minimum wage amounts set by some cities are higher still.
The United States Congress sets a minimum wage in the Fair Labor Standards Act. It can raise that wage from time to time. It is currently set at $7.25 an hour, which has been the minimum wage since 2009. This amount of hourly pay serves as a floor for the wages of nonexempt employees around the country. No worker in any of the 50 states can be paid less than this.
Minimum Wage Laws: California State
The minimum wage set by the state of California is much higher than the federal wage. It is currently set at $12 per hour for employers with 26 or more workers, and $11 an hour for smaller employers.
And some cities in California set even higher minimum wages for residents – and many do. As of 2019, the city of Emeryville, California, has the highest minimum wage, currently set at $16.30 per hour, but many cities have minimum wages that exceed $15 an hour, including Cupertino, El Cerrito, Los Altos, Milpitas, Mountain View, Palo Alto, San Francisco, San Jose, San Mateo and Sunnyvale.
The good news for California employees is that the applicable minimum wages are not only higher than other states but that they are also on the rise. The state minimum wage is set to rise every year through 2023, when it will top out at $15 for all employers. Many cities also are increasing minimum wages over the next few years.
Overtime Laws: Federal
Neither federal nor state laws limit the number of hours an adult employee is allowed to work during a day or week. That’s left to the employer and the employee to work out in an employment contract. However, under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, an employee must be paid overtime pay of at least 150 percent (1.5 times) of his regular pay if he is required to work more than 40 hours a week.
“Overtime law” means the laws and regulations that establish when overtime pay is mandated and how to calculate that pay. Many states simply piggyback on the Fair Labor Standards Act overtime laws. But others, like California, provide more generous protection.
Overtime Laws: California
California’s employees are also entitled to overtime based on hours worked in excess of 40 a week. But, in addition, they get overtime pay for any hours worked over eight hours in one day and any workweek that includes more than six workdays.
How much is overtime pay in California? An employee is entitled to 1.5 times her regular hourly rate for all hours worked above eight in one day, up to 12 hours. The “1.5 time” also applies to the first eight hours worked on a seventh consecutive workday. However, double-time kicks in for all hours over 12 worked in any one day and all hours worked above eight on a seventh consecutive day in a workweek.
While overtime benefits are only available to nonexempt employees, certain professions that might normally be considered exempt are entitled to overtime, including first responders (such as police officers, firefighters and paramedics). Practical nurses and paralegals are also specifically included in overtime law protection.
Work Break Laws in California
Federal labor law does not require that employers give nonexempt employees any work breaks at all. California employees profit from the much more generous state law provisions.
California nonexempt employees are entitled to three different kinds of work breaks: unpaid meal breaks, paid rest periods and unpaid lactation breaks for nursing mothers. These provisions are found in the California Labor Code, and each type of break is governed by specific rules.
California Meal Breaks
California law requires that an employee receive sufficient time to eat a meal during her work shift. A nonexempt employee must be given a 30-minute meal break whenever she works a shift of more than five hours. If her shift is longer than 10 hours, the employer must give her an additional 30-minute meal break.
Meal breaks in California mean time off work, but it isn’t paid. Because of that, the employee may prefer to skip the work breaks and get home earlier. In certain cases, she is allowed to waive a meal break. For example, if an employee’s shift is less than six hours, she can waive the first meal break. She can waive the second meal break if she doesn’t work longer than 12 hours that day, but only if she did not waive the first meal break.
California Rest Breaks
California law also requires that employers give a nonexempt employee rest breaks, time he can step away from his responsibilities and do whatever he likes to relax. A rest break is 10 minutes, and it’s paid time.
An employee gets one 10-minute rest break if he works four hours or a “substantial fraction” of four hours. The courts read “substantial fraction” to mean anything over two hours. Generally, rest periods should be scheduled in the middle of the worker’s shift to the extent that is possible.
Note that a rest break is not a restroom break, and the fact that an employee uses the toilet during working hours does not count toward her rest break. Naturally, an employee is free to use the restroom on his rest break as well.
Work Breaks Are Not for Work
Employers are not permitted to ask employees to work, answer phones or stay on standby during a work break. On the other hand, employers don’t enforce work break etiquette. An employer is not responsible if an employee decides to work on a work break, as long as it was done without a nudge from management.
Penalties for Failure to Comply
Any employer who fails to provide the required meal or rest breaks is subject to a fine payable to the employee. For each day an employee is denied his rest break or meal break, he gets an hour’s extra pay at his regular rate.
For example, if an employee worked eight hours without a break, he would have missed two rest breaks and one meal break. The penalty would be two extra hours of pay, one for denied rest breaks and one for denied lunch breaks. The employee can file a wage claim with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, or he can go to court to enforce this penalty.
Lactation Breaks Under Federal and State Law
A female employee with an infant child has the right to take lactation breaks in California. Under both federal and state law, employers must provide lactation breaks to accommodate any female workers who wish to express breast milk for their babies.
The Affordable Care Act amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to require that an employer offer lactation breaks for up to a year after an infant’s birth. However, this only applies to employers with at least 50 employees. Those with fewer employees can avoid lactation breaks under federal law if they can show that it would impose an undue hardship. However, California’s Labor Code section 1030 applies the lactation break requirement to all employers.
An employer must provide a private spot for employees to take their lactation breaks, and it must be shielded from the view of others. Laws specify that the lactation area cannot be a bathroom stall.
If an employer refuses to follow the law and provide employees with lactation breaks, an employee can bring a lawsuit against the employer. Alternatively, the employee can report the employer’s actions to the Labor Commissioner.
- California Labor Law: California Meal Break & Rest Break Law (2019)
- Gibbs Law: California Labor Law
- Employment Law Handbook: California Employment and Labor Laws
- California DIR: Labor Commissioner's Office Frequently Asked Questions
- California Labor and Employment Law: California Meal Break Law for Employees 2019
- Minimum Wage.org: California
- California DIR: Overtime