What Are the Meal and Rest Break Laws in California?

office workers havinf a meal break

In California, the meal and rest break laws are so complex that they have caused confusion among employers. Because of intentional or accidental non-compliance, many businesses have had to deal with expensive litigation. Unfortunately, a lot of companies are not comprehensively informed about the California Labor Code and continue to use outdated policies.

Whether you’re running a small start-up or you’re managing a big company, you must understand how the law evolves. Court interpretations of key labor issues can affect how you shape your practices and policies.

Remember that certain occupations and industries may have different rules and exceptions. So, it is still best that you consult a legal team to check the rules and regulations that apply to your workforce. In any case, we’ve listed the key points that employers should understand about California meal and rest periods.

What Is the California Meal Break Law?

plate with salad near macbook

The labor laws in California mandate that employees who work at least five hours a day have an unpaid 30-minute meal break. Moreover, employees who work for more than ten hours must be given another 30-minute meal break. Now, an individual can have their California meal break waived if they work less than six hours per day. Let’s say that Adam works a 6-hour shift at a burger joint. He is entitled to one 30-minute meal break for his shift. However, he can waive this so he can work the entire 6-hour shift uninterrupted.

What if Adam works 12 hours or less? Well, as long as he used his first meal break, he is free to waive his second meal break. Under the California lunch break law, employees are only allowed to waive one meal break for every 12-hour shift. For a meal break to be lawful, employers must comply with the following:

  • Relinquishing control of the activities of the employee
  • Releasing the employee from their work-related responsibilities
  • Setting the right environment for an uninterrupted meal break that lasts for 30 minutes
  • Never discouraging employees from going on a lunch pause
  • Never giving rewards to employees who skip meals
  • Never creating an environment and a workplace culture that promotes skipping rest periods

When Can Employees Take Their Meal Break?

As we’ve mentioned, employees working for at least five hours within a single shift are entitled to a single meal break with a 30-minute duration. As an employer, you must allot a meal break before the fifth hour of their shift ends. Let’s say your subordinate’s shift starts at 9:30AM; then their schedule should look like this:

work schedule with meal break

Now, if the employee works at least ten hours, then they are entitled to another meal pause. It should be allotted before the tenth hour ends.

man eating burger in front of laptop

Due to the nature of certain occupations, employees may not be able to take an uninterrupted meal pause. For instance, a lone security guard with no one to take their spot cannot abandon their post and take a meal break. Because of their job circumstances, their employer cannot relieve them of their responsibilities. Moreover, they may have to take their meal breaks while remaining onsite. In such a scenario, the security guard can have an on-duty meal break.

It is worth noting that on-duty meal rest periods are compensated. However, this must be approved and put into writing by the employer and the employee. Even so, certain conditions must still be met. For instance, the employee should have the freedom to annul the agreement anytime they wish. On the other hand, if they miss their on-duty meal recess, they cannot ask for compensation.

Requirements for Taking Meal Breaks On-site

construction worker having meal break

In certain situations, employees can only take their lunch breaks within the worksite. For example, a construction worker in a remote location is unable to leave the site for their meal break. In this case, their employer must have an area suitable for eating. Moreover, even if the employee is relieved of their responsibilities, they must still be paid.

Now, if the meal break falls on the graveyard shift (between 10PM to 6AM), there should be facilities for heating drinks and food. What’s more, there should be a sheltered area for consuming meals.

What Is the California Rest Break Law?

Rest periods in California are strictly regulated as well. As mandated by the law, there must be a 10- minute rest period for every (or a major fraction of) four hours worked. A ‘major fraction’ can cover any duration going above two hours of a four-hour shift. Let’s say an employee works a shift that lasts for 7.5 hours. In this case, they can take two rest periods that last for ten minutes. There’s one for the first hours of work, then another one for the remainder of the shift (3.5 hours). Keep in mind that a ‘major fraction’ of four hours means more than 50% of four hours.

Now, if an employee works for less than 3.5 hours, then their employer is not compelled to give them a rest break.

What Are the Conditions for Rest Periods in California?

The ten-minute rest period must be uninterrupted. Moreover, during the period, the employer must relieve the employee of the latter’s duties. There should also be a suitable resting facility apart from the toilet rooms. Also, rest periods are paid.

Now, when can employees take their rest periods? Well, the period can be in the middle of the shift, ‘insofar as practicable.’ What’s more, employees are not compelled to be on call or on-site while taking their rest periods.

Can Everyone Take Meal and Rest Breaks in California?

Sit Back And Relax

Some employees are exempted from the law-mandated meal and rest periods. For instance, certain white-collar workers are not covered by the regulation if they meet the following criteria:

  • They work independently without consulting a superior.
  • They spend at least half of their workday performing managerial or intellectual work.
  • Their monthly salary is at least double the California minimum wage for permanent employment.

It’s also worth noting that independent contractors and freelancers are not covered by the meal and rest period laws in California. Moreover, unionized workers are considered exempt. Here are some of the occupations generally considered exempted:

  • Security officers
  • Construction workers
  • Commercial drivers
  • Gas or electrical company repairmen
  • Those employed in the motion picture industry

Can Your Employer Force You to Take a ‘Working’ Lunch Break?

Keep in mind that meal breaks are unpaid. Moreover, during meal and rest periods, nonexempt employees are not required to stay on-site or on-duty. As mandated by the law, their rest periods should be spent doing non-work-related activities. So, if your employer forces you to work during your meal or rest periods, you are allowed to sue them. Moreover, California law states that you should be compensated an hour’s pay for every rest period you are not allowed to take. For instance, if you have been denied 100 breaks and you earn $15 an hour, your employer must pay you $1,500.

The Easy Way to Ensure Meal and Rest Break Compliance

When employees are swamped with work, they can easily forget to take meal and rest periods. This is the reason why time tracking can help protect workers’ rights. By using Traqq, you see how your staff members spend their time. If you notice that they haven’t been taking their rest periods, you can immediately call them out on it. What’s great about Traqq is it uses military-grade encryption. So, while you’re protecting their right to taking breaks, you’re also safeguarding their privacy.

Final Thoughts

California meal and rest period rules can be complicated, and they’re even harder to follow. Even so, you can use a time tracker to ensure that your employees adhere to what the law mandates. As always, if you still need further clarification, your best bet is to get legal counsel in California.

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