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.

California’s Meal and Rest Laws

California’s employment laws are relatively strong when compared to those of numerous other states. Many of California’s laws are designed to ensure workers are treated fairly and ethically on the job.

However, some employers don’t necessarily abide by all applicable laws and regulations. You need to be familiar with your rights as an employee to avoid unfair treatment in the workplace.

California has specific laws regarding how much time employees should be permitted to spend on breaks and meals. The following overview will cover what you need to know about these statutes. If you believe your rights as an employee are being violated, get in touch with a California meal and rest breaks attorney to address the situation properly.

Meal and Rest Breaks

There is no universal rule regarding how much time employees must allow workers to devote to meal breaks and rest breaks in California. The law varies depending on the length of an employee’s shift.

As of this writing, the basics of the law are as follows:

  • Employees who work more than five hours per day must be provided with a meal period of at least 30 minutes (although both employer and employee can waive this meal period if the total work shift is no more than six hours per day)
  • Employees who work more than 10 hours per day must be provided with at least two meal periods of at least 30 minutes each (although the second meal period can be waived by both employer and employee if the total work shift is no more than 12 hours per day)

Employers and supervisors are not allowed to interrupt an employee’s break. For example, suppose you are taking a meal break and a supervisor demands that you respond to a work-related email. In this case, they are not permitted to take disciplinary action against you if you refuse to comply with their demands.

Meal breaks are not the only types of breaks that employees may be entitled to in California. Specifically, for every four hours that you spend working, you may take a 10-minute break from work that doesn’t have to overlap with a meal break. Employees are advised to take these breaks during the middle of four-hour spans of work. It’s also best if they take said breaks in areas of their workplace that are separate from where they tend to perform their work-related tasks.

Waiving Breaks in California

Again, there are instances when employees and employers in California can choose to waive a meal break. This is not something that should happen often. Ideally, employees and their supervisors will only agree to waive the right to a break if taking a break would unreasonably prevent an employee from completing an essential task. Don’t let an employer abuse this loophole too often.

Penalties for Violating California’s Meal and Rest Break Laws

An employer may face fines if they are found to be in violation of California’s meal and rest break laws. However, when serious violations occur, they may even face civil consequences.

Employers must often provide some form of restitution to employees who have been deprived of breaks they deserve under California law.

Just be aware that proving an employer has violated California’s relevant labor laws can require conducting an investigation into the matter. You may not be prepared to do so on your own. This is one of the many reasons you should consider reviewing your case with an attorney.

If you suspect your employer has been unfairly preventing you from taking breaks, or if you have been punished by an employer because you have elected to take your breaks, it’s wise to discuss the circumstances with a lawyer. They can help you determine whether taking legal action is necessary. They can also protect you from future abuses of power.

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.

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About The Author

Nicholas J. Ferraro

Nicholas J. Ferraro is a skilled labor and employment lawyer and the founder of Ferraro Vega Employment Lawyers, Inc. Based in San Diego, he focuses on representing employees in class action and collective litigation cases. Education: Mr. Ferraro attended the University of San Diego School of Law, where he was a member of the San Diego Law Review. Experience: Over a decade of legal practice, representing more than 100,000 employees. Court Admissions: Mr. Ferraro represents his clients throughout the State of California and the State of Washington. He is a member of the State Bar of California. Community Involvement: Active member of the California Employment Lawyers Association and the San Diego County Bar Association.