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Am I Entitled to Meal and Rest Breaks in California?

Non-exempt employees in California have multiple protections under federal and state law, including the right to a minimum wage and overtime compensation. One of the rights provided under state law but not under federal law is the right to receive meal and rest breaks. Additionally, California law requires most exempt employees to receive meal breaks. The length of an employee's shift determines how many rest breaks they are entitled to. If an employer doesn't provide an employee with the opportunity to take one meal or rest break, the employee must receive an additional hour of pay at their regular hourly rate. When an employee doesn't receive any meal or rest breaks during a shift despite their entitlement, the employer must pay them up to an hour per workday for the missed rest breaks and another hour per day for the missed meal breaks. Here is an overview of the meal and rest break rights of employees in California.

Right to Rest Breaks in California

Under California law, employers must give non-exempt employees a 10-minute rest break once per four hours worked. A rest break is defined as an uninterrupted period during which the employee is not required to work, and the employee must still be paid during this time. An employer does not have to give an employee a rest break if they work less than 3.5 hours total. However, if they work six or more hours, they are entitled to two rest breaks. This is because they are entitled to a rest break in the first four hours and another rest break during the second two hours because that time is considered to be a major fraction of another four hours. Similarly, if an employee works for 10 hours, they will be entitled to three 10-minute rest breaks during their shift.

Rest breaks must fall in the middle of the four-hour work period as much as possible. However, there is some flexibility. If it would be impractical for an employee to take a rest break in the middle of the four hours, the break can be given at a different time.

Can Rest Breaks Be Waived?

Employers must allow employees to take the number of 10-minute rest breaks per shift they are entitled to. If they don't permit them to do so, the employers will be liable to pay a penalty. An employee can choose to miss a rest break, and the employer will not be penalized. However, the employer can't pressure an employee to skip a rest break. Employers also can't require employees to stay on-site when they take rest breaks.

Right to Meal Breaks in California

Non-exempt employees must be given a meal break of at least 30 uninterrupted minutes based on the number of hours the employees work. These longer breaks do not have to be used to eat. Typically, meal breaks are unpaid unless the employee is required to work through them. An employee must be allowed to leave the worksite during a meal break and to have control over their time during it.

The following is a breakdown of how many meal breaks must be provided by the number of hours worked in a shift:

  • Shift up to five hours - No meal break required
  • Shift of more than five hours - One 30-minute meal break
  • Shift of 10 or more hours - Two 30-minute meal breaks

Meal breaks are computed by the number of hours worked rather than the number of hours the employee was scheduled to work.

The first meal break must begin before the employee starts their fifth hour of work. If they will work enough hours to be entitled to two meal breaks, the second break must start before they have started their 10th hour of work.

Employers do not have to make sure their employees do not work through meal breaks. However, they also can't discourage employees from taking meal breaks or require them to work through them.

Can a Meal Break be Waived?

Employees who work for six or fewer hours can mutually agree to waive their meal break with their employer. If an employee works more than six hours, the meal break can't be waived. Employees who work up to 12 hours can waive the second meal break by mutual consent. However, the second meal break can't be waived if they waived the first one.

When a Meal Break Can Be Taken on Duty

In some specific situations, an employer will not have to relieve an employee of all duties during their meal break, but the employee must be paid for their time. The following circumstances allow employers to provide on-duty meal breaks:

  • The employee's job is of a nature that prevents the employer from relieving them of all duties.
  • The employer and employee have a written agreement for on-duty meal breaks that are paid.
  • The employee must be allowed to revoke the written agreement at any time.

If an employee must take an on-duty meal break, the employer must provide a place they can eat. If the shift starts or ends between 10 pm to 6 am, the employer must also provide a way for employees to get hot food and drinks or to heat food and drinks.

Missed Rest and Meal Breaks

If an employee isn't given a 10-minute rest break or a 30-minute meal break when they are legally entitled to receive it, they must be paid an extra hour of pay at their regular hourly rate. If they miss several rest or meal breaks, the employer must pay them up to an extra hour for the missed rest breaks and another hour for the missed meal breaks. If the employer permits the employee to take rest or meal breaks, but the employee doesn't do so, the employer doesn't have to pay a penalty for missing that time. However, if they work through the meal break, they are still entitled to be paid for their work.

Breaks to Express Milk

New mothers who are breastfeeding their babies must be given breaks to express breast milk. This time should be taken during the employee's other rest or meal breaks if possible. If it doesn't happen during another break, the employer doesn't have to pay the employee for the time spent expressing milk.

A lactating employee must be provided with a private area or room to express milk. It should be near their workstation and can't be a toilet stall. Employers do not have to provide breaks to express milk if doing so would be a serious disruption to their operations. However, in most cases, employers must provide these breaks. Failing to provide a break to express milk can result in a penalty of $100 per occurrence.

Exempt Employees and the Right to Breaks

Exempt employees, including administrators, executives, professionals, and others defined by law, are not entitled to receive rest breaks. To qualify as a white-collar exempt employee, the employee must meet the following criteria:

  • Must receive a salary that equals at least two times the state's minimum wage
  • Must have job duties consisting of professional, administrative, or executive tasks
  • Must be able to use independent judgment and discretion when performing their duties

In addition to white-collar exempt employees who meet the above criteria, the law also provides exceptions for people working in specific industries, including:

  • Employees whose primary job duties involve caring for children
  • Employees in healthcare
  • Certain public employees
  • Motion picture employees
  • Wholesale baking employees
  • Union employees working under a collective bargaining agreement
  • Commercial drivers
  • Construction employees
  • Security services employees
  • Utility employees

Employees in these industries may have different rules and not be subject to California's meal and rest break rules.

What to Do if Your Employer Has Violated Your Rights to Rest and Meal Breaks

If your employer has failed to provide you with the required meal or rest breaks, you have a couple of options. First, you can talk to your employer and try to resolve the issue on your own. However, many employers will not agree to do this.

Your other options are to file a wage claim with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) or file a lawsuit against your employer in court. An experienced wage and hour attorney can help you determine your best options for resolving your dispute. It's important to consult an attorney at the law firm of Steven M. Sweat, APC quickly because you must meet strict deadlines to file a lawsuit or wage claim.

We have years of experience fighting for the rights of people in California and provide free case evaluations. To schedule a free consultation and learn about your options, call us today at 866.966.5240.

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