Unlike many states, California requires employers to offer meal breaks to nonexempt employees. As long as the employee is given free reign during the break, the meal period doesn't have to be paid. However, if the employer requires the employee to stay on site, the meal period should be paid for as part of the hours the employee worked that pay period.
California Meal Period Requirements
California labor law requires that nonexempt employees take periodic, unpaid meal breaks. Employees who work more than five hours in one shift must take at least one 30 minute break. The employee must take the break before beginning her fifth hour of work. For example, if a nonexempt employee works from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., she must take her meal break before 1 p.m.
For especially long shifts, employees must take an additional meal break. Employees who work more than 10 hours in one day must take a second meal break before starting the 10th hour of work.
Meal Location Implications
In order for a meal break to be unpaid, employees must be free to have their break onsite or to leave the premises if they choose. Employers can require employees to stay onsite during a meal break. However, if an employer requires this, the meal break is considered to be paid time. That means the employer must compensate the employee at his normal pay rate for the length of the break. On the other hand, if the employee voluntarily chooses to have lunch in an employer lunch area, the time doesn't need to be compensated.
Employee Break Room Requirements
If your employer requires that you stay on site for lunch, the lunch area must meet certain state specifications. The California Department of Industrial Relations requires that the lunch area be sheltered, be suitable for consuming food and drink and have facilities that provide food or allow an employee to prepare food. For example, a covered break area with a refrigerator, microwave and tables would be a suitable area. A break area with no microwave or oven would not be suitable under California break room laws.
Reporting Non-Compliant Employers
If your employer forces you to skip your meal period or offers no break room at work that meets the state's requirements despite forcing you to stay onsite, you do have recourse. California law requires employers to provide one extra hour of employee pay for every day they break this rule. Employees can report non-compliant employers by filing a wage claim with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.