California's labor laws include statutes requiring employers to provide rest breaks and meal periods for most employees during the workday. The laws ensure that employees who work a certain amount of hours will have time to relax and recuperate. Although the right to take rest and meal periods is common in the workplace, not every state is as emphatic as California about mandating that right.
California employees must receive a paid rest period of at least 10 minutes for every four-hour segment they work. Within each segment, working more than two hours qualifies the employee for a break. If an employee works six hours and 15 minutes, for example, he must receive two 10-minute breaks -- one for the first four-hour segment, and one for working more than two hours in the second four-hour segment. If an employee's workday totals less than 3 1/2 hours, however, he does not have to receive any rest periods.
Certain occupations may not have the same rights to paid breaks. Employers of on-site laborers, such as construction workers and miners, may decline to authorize break periods if a disruption would jeopardize the operation, but must compensate employees with an extra 10 minutes of pay. Workers at a 24-hour residential care facility may get only limited rest periods under certain circumstances.
Any California employee who works more than five hours has the right to a meal period of at least 30 minutes. Likewise, any employee who works more than 10 hours may take a second 30-minute meal period. An exception applies if the employee's workday lasts less than six hours, in which case the employee and employer may mutually agree to waive the employee's right to a meal period; the employee retains the right to revoke the agreement. The employer does not need to pay employees for their time during the meal break.
Employers should be careful not to violate employees' right to an uninterrupted meal break. Employees must not have to perform any work-related activities during the 30-minute period. If an employee ends up having to do anything work-related, the employer must compensate her at her usual wage rate. In that scenario, the nature of the employee's duties must objectively prevent her from taking a meal period, and she must sign a written agreement in advance stating that she will work through her meal time. Even if employees do not have to perform work duties, they must receive their usual rate of pay if the employer requires them to remain on-site during the meal period.
Only a few other states have similar laws to California regarding paid rest periods during the workday. Colorado, Kentucky, Nevada, Oregon and Washington are the other states that mandate 10-minute rest periods for every four hours on the job. About 20 states require meal periods, usually of 30 minutes, for employees who work a certain number of hours. The majority of states have meal period requirements for employees who are minors.
Unless employees specifically waive their right to one, they may not "opt out" of the daily meal period. Employees may not work through a meal period for the sake of leaving work 30 minutes earlier than usual, for example. Similarly, employees may not leave early if they have worked through their paid rest breaks. If an employee needs to use the bathroom during a shift, the employer may not count that time as part of the employee's 10-minute break.