California On-Duty Meal Period and Rest Period Update

Employees need to understand their rights to meal periods and rest periods. Most employees are entitled to rest periods and meal breaks during their shift. However, there is a difference between on-duty meal periods and rest breaks and off-duty meal breaks and rest periods.

What Are the Rules for Meal Breaks and Rest Periods in California?

Non-exempt workers are entitled to a meal break and rest periods during their work shifts. An employee who has white-collar duties, is paid at least twice the state minimum wage, and has independent judgment may be exempt from mandatory meal breaks and rest periods. There are also some job-specific exemptions.

If you are unsure whether you are exempt from meal breaks and rest periods, you might want to discuss your situation with an employment law attorney. Most employees, even those that are exempt from the requirements for breaks, are entitled to take meal breaks.

On-Duty and Off-Duty Meal Periods

The number of meal periods an employer must allow depends on the number of hours the employee works during a shift. Whether the meal period is considered work hours depends on other factors.

If an employee works for at least five hours, the employer must provide the employee with a 30-minute meal period before the expiration of the fifth hour. If the employee works ten or more hours during a shift, the employer must provide them with a second 30-minute meal period before the expiration of the tenth hour.

An employee can voluntarily waive their first meal period if they work less than six hours. They may waive their second meal period if: 1) they worked less than 12 hours, and 2) they did not waive their first meal period. Off-duty meal periods are unpaid. 

However, the employer must:

  • Permit the employee to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break 
  • Relieve the employee of all work duties
  • Not discourage the employee or hinder the employee from taking their meal break
  • Allow the employee to leave the worksite

On-duty meal periods are only allowed in specific instances. The employee and the employer must agree in writing to on-duty meal periods. The employee must be paid, and the employee can revoke the agreement at any time in writing.

Labor laws only allow on-duty meal periods when the nature of the work prevents the employee from being relieved of all job duties. For example, an on-duty meal period may be allowed when the employee is the only person working. 

Another important thing to note is that when employees are required to take meals on-site, the employer must provide a suitable place for the employee to take a meal break. The employer may be required to provide a place to acquire hot food and drink or reheat food and keep items cold. 

Rules Regarding Rest Periods

Employers must provide regular rest periods for their employees. The rest periods must be at least ten minutes for every four hours worked or a major fraction of four hours worked. Employers must pay employees for rest breaks. 

Typically, rest breaks would be in the middle of a four-hour shift. For example, during an eight-hour shift, there would be two 10-minute rest breaks. If an employee works fewer than 3.5 hours, they are not entitled to a rest break. 

Employers cannot require employees to remain on-call or on-site during a rest period. If the employer does not relieve the employee of all job duties during a rest break, the employer must pay the employee for the time. An employee may voluntarily choose to skip a rest period.

Penalties for Violating Rest Breaks and Meal Periods 

The consequences for violating meal periods and rest breaks can be severe. For example, employers must pay employees an hour of their regular wage for each day the employer denied a meal period. The employer must also pay an hour’s pay to an employee if the employer denies or interrupts a rest break.

An employee may also have a claim for overtime wages if they were denied a meal period or rest break during overtime hours. In some cases, an employee may have a claim for employer retaliation. If the employer imposes adverse consequences for employees who take their lawful breaks, the employer could face additional penalties for damages. 

Filing Claims for Rest Break and Meal Period Violations 

The laws governing meal periods and rest breaks can be confusing. Some employees are exempt from these labor laws. Other exceptions may exist depending on the type of job or the circumstances of the job. 

An employment law attorney can review your case to determine if you have a claim. An attorney advises you of your legal rights and explains how to file a labor law claim or lawsuit seeking damages for wage and hour violations