California Labor Laws Relating to Breaks & Meal Periods

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Everybody who holds down a job deserves a break. California is one of the states that makes sure they get it! The state's liberal employment laws require employers to provide bathroom breaks, rest breaks and meal periods for most employees throughout the workday. The rest break laws set out who gets these breaks, how many hours they must work to have the right to a break, and which breaks are on-the-clock and which are not.

Not sure about the breaks the law allows? Get an overview of California break laws. It's the only way an employee can be sure they get the breaks the law mandates.

Types of Employee Work Breaks

California employees have the legal right to three different kinds of work breaks during their shift: bathroom breaks, rest breaks and meal breaks. These breaks are different and separate, and although an employee can certainly visit the restroom during a rest break or a meal break, they aren't required to; they must be allowed to take separate bathroom breaks.

Each type of break was crafted by the California legislature with a different purpose in mind. Bathroom breaks are intended to allow a worker to visit the restroom. Rest brakes are intended to give the employee a brief time away from job focus, a time to relax and think about other things. The purpose of a meal break is obvious – it is a time the employee can sit down, away from the office if they wish, and eat an uninterrupted meal.

An employer is not permitted to force an employee to do work or to be on call during any of their breaks. The breaks are personal time.

Employees Entitled to Break Time

Most of California's labor law protections apply only to "non-exempt" employees – those that do not fit into one of the exempted categories, including all break period requirements. To determine which employees are non-exempt, it is necessary to understand which groups of employees are exempt; the rest are non-exempt.

In California, the most significant category of exempt employees is white-collar workers. These are generally people in management or some other intellectual or creative field. To be exempt, a white-collar worker must spend more than half their work time doing managerial, intellectual or creative work in which they are allowed to exercise discretion and independent judgment. In addition, they must be salaried and earn at least twice the state minimum wage for full-time employment.

Other important exempt categories include freelance workers, also called independent contractors, and those unionized employees whose collective bargaining agreements provide for meal breaks on a different schedule. This includes construction workers, commercial drivers, employees of electrical or gas companies, among others.

Bathroom Breaks in California

Every employee has the right to go to the bathroom whenever they need to, as many times as they need to, throughout the day. An employer cannot limit or question that right, as long as it is used reasonably. When taking a bathroom break, the worker must physically enter the bathroom; the break cannot be used to take a walk or make a call. These breaks are on-the-clock, meaning that the time spent on bathroom breaks must be counted in hours worked by the employee.

The only restraint California law puts on bathroom breaks is that they must be reasonable. If an employee is abusing their right to visit the bathroom when they need to, the employer can issue a warning and, if the behavior continues, set limits. But this is only appropriate if there is an obvious abuse, like an employee spending hours in the bathroom on a regular basis.

Rest Break Requirements in California

The second type of break most workers are entitled to in California is termed a rest break. That doesn't mean that the worker takes a nap or even lies down. Rather, rest breaks are a time to stop dashing about, literally or figuratively, for the job. The worker can get a breath of fresh air, call a friend or even meditate if they like. They must not be on call and cannot be required to work.

California rest breaks must be at least 10 minutes and are paid time. That means that they are not in addition to, or outside of, the employee's work shift; they are part of the regular hours of work. An employee in California is entitled to one rest break every time they complete a four-hour segment of work. Courts have rules that any "substantial part" of a four-hour shift will be sufficient to mandate a rest break, including a shift of 3 1/2 hours. If possible, the employee should get this break in the middle of a four-hour work segment.

After the first work break, an employee is entitled to a second break when they work two hours of the next segment of their shift. In a normal eight-hour shift, a worker will be entitled to two rest breaks, meaning they will actually work only seven hours and 40 minutes, yet will be paid for eight hours. However, if the worker's shift for the day is less than 3 1/2 hours, no rest periods are authorized.

California Meal Breaks

Meal breaks are the times when a worker in California sits down somewhere and eats lunch, dinner or breakfast, depending on their shift. Non-exempt workers with a shift longer than four hours in a day are entitled to a 30-minute meal break. If the employee's shift is more than 10 hours, they are entitled to a second, 30-minute meal break.

Meal breaks, like rest breaks, are personal time. Unlike rest breaks and bathroom breaks, however, meal breaks are off-the-clock. That means that the time taken for a meal break is not paid time. For that reason, some employees would rather skip the meal break and leave work 30 minutes earlier.

However, this waiver is allowed only if the employee's shift is no longer than six hours. If the shift is longer, the employee is legally obligated to take the meal break to which they are entitled. The employee can, however, waive a second meal break if their shift is 12 hours or less and they took the first meal break.

Examples of Meal Breaks and Waivers

How do these complicated California employment rules about meal breaks and waivers work in real life? It helps to look at a few examples:

  • If an employee's shift is from 8 a.m. to noon, it is only four hours, and the worker does not get any meal or lunch break.
  • If the same employee's shift is from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., they have the right to one 30-minute meal break because the shift is more than four hours, but the worker might waive the break since the shift is less than six hours.
  • If the worker's shift is all day, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., they are eligible for two 30-minute breaks since the shift is 10 hours. However, a worker who takes the first break can waive the second, but one break is mandated.
  • If the employee's shift runs from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., the person must take two, 30-minute meal breaks since the shift is more than 12 hours. They cannot waive either meal break.

Working During Meal Breaks

Meal breaks are segments of time that belong to the employee. While the law does not mandate that a worker actually eat something during the break, the employer generally cannot require the employee to be on call or even to answer phones during this time. In fact, the worker must be free to leave the work premises if they wish.

If an employer requires work from an employee on a meal break, it is the legal equivalent of denying the worker the break. Even if the employer does not mandate work during the meal break, but requires an employee to remain on site during the meal period, the worker must be paid for this time.

On the other hand, an employer is not mandated to supervise the worker's break to ensure that they do not work. If an employee voluntarily and without pressure opts to work during a break, no one will stop them.

"On Duty" Meal Periods

In limited circumstances, “on-duty meal periods” are permitted, but this is quite rare. An employee can be required to work through a meal break if the nature of the work makes it difficult or impossible for the worker to be relieved of all duty. This could happen if the person is the sole security guard on duty in an establishment. For this to be legal, the employee must agree to it in writing, the employee must be paid for their time, and the employee is free to revoke this written agreement at any point.

Fines for California Meal Break Law Violations

An employer in California faces fines and penalties if they refuse to follow the state's break laws. Any employee denied one or more of the breaks described in the statute can sue the employer charging violation of California Labor Code. These cases can be brought by one employee or by many as class actions. In fact, many successful wage and hour class action lawsuits have been brought against employers for failure to provide meal breaks or rest periods.

What is at stake for the employer? In California, every time an employer refuses to follow the law and denies an employee one of these mandated breaks, they must pay that employee an extra hour of pay at their regular rate of pay. If two breaks are denied in one day, the penalty is two extra hours of pay.

For example, if an employee is denied two breaks every day for a year, they will be owed approximately 500 hours of pay at their regular hourly rate. The worker can also demand the extra hour of pay directly from the employer and, if it is denied, file a wage claim with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.

Filing a Wage Claim

If the worker files a wage claim, it is reviewed by a deputy labor commissioner who can order a conference or a hearing. The parties are given the date, time and place by mail. When a conference is ordered, the deputy labor commissioner will figure out whether the claim is valid and whether it can be resolved without a hearing.

If the claim is not resolved, a hearing is set. At this hearing, parties and their witnesses testify under oath, and the entire proceedings are recorded. An order, decision or award is issued, and either party may appeal to a court for a new trial, at which the parties again present evidence and witnesses.