California Lunch Break Law 2024 – All You Need to Know

Under California labor codes, rest and meal breaks must be provided by employers for nonexempt employees. How many breaks employees are entitled to depend on the length of their shift and whether or not they have already waived breaks.

Meal Breaks

Nonexempt California employees must be given a meal or lunch break for a minimum of 30 minutes for shifts longer than five hours. This break is unpaid, uninterrupted, and must begin before the end of your fifth hour of work. This break can be waived if your work day isn’t longer than 6 hours.

If you work more than 10 hours in one workday, you must receive a second 30-minute unpaid meal break. This meal break can be waived, provided:

  • You don’t work for more than 12 hours that workday
  • You didn’t waive your first meal break

In order to remain unpaid, meal or lunch breaks must meet certain requirements.

Rest Breaks

Rest breaks are at least a ten-minute period of paid rest for every four hours of work. If an employee works a four-hour shift, they are allotted one rest break and two after working eight hours. Ideally, these breaks are taken in the middle of the four hours, if practical.

Rest periods aren’t required for employees who work under 3.5 hours in a workday.

Depending on the shift a nonexempt employee is working, they may be entitled to both multiple rest breaks and multiple meal breaks. Your employer can’t require you to combine all your breaks into one break or discourage you from taking breaks. However, you can choose to waive certain breaks.

When Are Employees Entitled to Meal and Rest Breaks?

Most nonexempt employees are those who earn weekly wages, although there are exceptions. Exempt employees are entitled to meal breaks but not rest breaks. Exempt employees generally must meet these requirements:

  • They earn a monthly salary at least twice the minimum wage for full-time employment
  • Their job duties require regular use of discretion and independent judgment
  • More than half their work is administrative, managerial, professional, or executive

Some workers have different rest and meal break laws, including domestic employees and farm employees. Employees who perform their job duties outside have the right to take a cool-off break in the shade whenever they need. This is to protect employees from heat illness.

These break laws also do not apply to independent contractors and some employees in the healthcare industry. Meal break requirements also don’t apply to unionized industries that have collective bargaining agreements for a separate schedule. These industries include:

  • Construction
  • Commercial drivers
  • Security officers
  • Movies and motion pictures
  • Electrical or gas companies

What Is a Valid Meal or Rest Break?

Employers can only claim they have provided the legally mandated break if the break:

  • Is uninterrupted
  • Relieves the employee of all their work duties
  • Allows the employee the ability to leave the worksite for meal breaks
  • Isn’t discouraged or prevented by the employer

Your breaks only count and are unpaid if they meet these requirements. If your employer requires you to work during your breaks or to remain “on-call,” that’s illegal for most occupations. This is the same as refusing your mandated breaks.

Employers don’t have to force an employee to take a meal or rest break. They only have to provide a reasonable opportunity for an employee to take a break. Taking a break and choosing to do or not do work on that break is up to the employee.

On-duty meals are necessary for some industries. You can only be required to work on your meal break if the nature of your work requires it, and it must be paid. This includes being the only person on duty. You can also be allowed on-duty meal breaks if the employer and employee have a written waiver to allow it. This can be revoked by the employee at any time.

FAQs About California Lunch Break Laws

Do I Legally Have to Take a Lunch Break in California?

If you work more than five hours but less than six in a workday, you can legally waive your meal break for any reason. If you work between ten and twelve hours in a workday, you can waive one of your meal breaks for any reason. If you and your employer come to a written agreement beforehand, you can volunteer to skip other breaks with no legal issues.

What Happens if I Take My Lunch Break After 5 Hours in California?

Legally, your meal should start before the end of the fifth hour of your shift. Your employer has to provide you with a reasonable opportunity to take a meal break, but you are responsible for taking your own meal breaks. This includes when exactly you choose to take a meal break and how much work you choose to do while on break.

Can an Employee Refuse a Lunch Break in California?

Though there are legal requirements for what rest and meal periods you are allowed to waive, you and your employer can reach other agreements. You can volunteer for on-duty or waived meal breaks, ideally with a written agreement. This should allow you paid on-duty meal periods in certain circumstances with no legal issues.

Can an Employer Refuse to Give You Your Lunch Break in California?

No, it is illegal for an employer to refuse your meal break if you are a nonexempt employee. Employers who do so are required to pay their employees an extra hour of pay for each day they failed to provide or were denied a meal break. This illegal behavior may occur in several ways. Your employer may pressure you to finish a break earlier or work during your meal. They may also make it impossible for you to take a break by failing to provide proper staffing.

Actions To Take If You Aren’t Provided Breaks

If your employer fails to provide you with rest and meal breaks or actively discourages you from taking them, you can file a claim against them. An experienced wage and hour attorney can provide you the representation you need to file a successful claim and get the compensation you earned. At Ferraro Vega San Diego Employment Lawyers, we are well-versed in the state’s labor code and employment law and want to use that knowledge to fight for workers’ rights. Contact our team today.