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Navigating California’s Meal and Rest Break Requirements: What Employers Need to Know

Posted by Grace H. Gil, Esq. | Oct 07, 2023

In the Golden State, California employers must navigate a complex landscape of meal and rest break laws to ensure compliance. This blog post covers the overview of California break law including the critical aspects of meal and rest breaks, common pitfalls, and the consequences of non-compliance.

Overview of California Break Law

California law mandates that non-exempt employees be provided with specific meal and rest breaks during their workday:

Meal Breaks: Employees must receive a 30-minute unpaid meal break if they work for more than 5 hours in a day. For shifts exceeding 10 hours, a second 30-minute meal break is required.

Rest Breaks: Employees are entitled to a 10-minute paid rest break for every 4 hours worked.

If an employee worked the substantial portion of the 4-hour period, or could not complete the full 4 hours but almost reached 4, for example 3 hour and half, California requires employer to provide rest breaks in that situation as well.

Uninterrupted and Duty-Free: These meal and rest breaks must be uninterrupted, and employees must be relieved from all their duties during such periods. Reasonable opportunity to take breaks must be given. For example, if your employees could not take a rest break for the 4-hour frame due to busy schedule, you can give them the break in some other time as long as that is within same shifts or insofar as practicable.

If you gave your employee meal time but it was interrupted by his work, you must include such meal time towards his working hour and consider the hour when calculating overtime as well. Note that if employees were relieved from all duties while taking their meal breaks, those meal periods are normally not considered hours worked. Rest breaks are unpaid and considered as working hours when calculating minimum wage and overtime payment.

Violation: A violation occurs when employers fail to provide these mandated breaks or when the breaks are not in compliance with state regulations. When employees are denied meal or rest breaks, employers are required to pay premium wages as compensation, one hour's pay at the employee's regular rate per day. If you have multiple violations in one day, you only pay for one hour per each break category, one hour for all missed meals and one hour for all missed rests for the day. 

As long as these breaks are made available for employees, it is okay even if employees do not actually take them at their choice. You don't need to pay your employees the 1-hour premium in such case as long as you did not pressure such choice or otherwise discourage them to take them. You can just pay for what they work in lieu of their meal periods. 

Meal Time Waiver Requirements

Under certain conditions, employees and employers can agree to waive a meal break. However, strict requirements must be met for such waivers to be valid:

  • The waiver must be voluntary.
  • The employee must have the option to revoke the waiver at any time.
  • Waivers are not permitted for shifts lasting fewer than six hours.
  • If a first meal was waived, a second meal cannot be waived. 

Proper On-Call Meal Breaks Elements

California allows for on-call meal breaks in specific situations, but employers must meet specific criteria:

  • The nature of the work must prevent the employee from being relieved of all duty.
  • Employees must agree to on-call meal breaks in writing.
  • The employee can revoke the agreement at any time.

What constitutes "the nature of the work preventing the employee from being relieved of all duty"?

Certain responsibilities or situations may make it impractical for employees to take a full, uninterrupted meal break where they are entirely free from work duties. For example, this can apply to certain emergency-related jobs, security-related job, or other jobs with unique circumstances, such as certain production or manufacturing roles, which may require ongoing monitoring or attention to specific processes. One-staff operation normally satisfies the nature of work element.

Employers must pay for the on-call meal time as working hour although are not required to pay the premiums.

Common Violations Scenario

Common examples of meal and rest break violations in California can include:

No Rest Breaks Provided: Employers failing to provide employees with the required 10-minute paid rest breaks for every four hours worked or a significant fraction thereof. This may happen when employers schedule employees for extended shifts without adequate rest periods.

Shortened or Interrupted Rest Breaks: Some employers may allow rest breaks but limit them to less than 10 minutes or interrupt them with work-related tasks, which violates California law.

Missed Meal Breaks: Employers not providing employees with the mandatory 30-minute unpaid meal breaks when the workday exceeds 5 hours. This can occur when employees are asked to work through their meal breaks or when employers discourage or prevent them from taking their full meal break.

Second Meal Break Omission: For shifts exceeding 10 hours, employers must provide a second 30-minute meal break. Violations occur when employers fail to do so or do not schedule the second meal break at the appropriate time.

Inadequate Waiver Process: When employers use meal break waivers, these waivers must meet specific criteria, including being voluntary and revocable by the employee. Violations can occur when waivers are not appropriately administered or documented.

On-Call Meal Break Violations: Employers must meet specific requirements for on-call meal breaks, such as the nature of the work preventing employees from being relieved of all duties. Violations can occur when these criteria are not met.

Failure to Keep Records: Employers are required to maintain records of meal and rest breaks, including when they were taken and if they were waived. Failure to keep accurate records can result in violations. Note that employers are required to maintain time records (clock-in and clock-out records) for meal breaks although they are not required as to rest breaks. 

Employee Pressure: Some employers may pressure or intimidate employees into waiving their meal and rest breaks, which is a violation of labor laws.

Failure to Pay Premiums: When employees are denied meal or rest breaks, employers are required to pay premium wages as compensation. Violations occur when employers fail to provide this additional pay.

Late Meal Breaks: Meal breaks must typically be provided by the end of the employee's fifth hour of work. Employers who consistently provide meal breaks late may be in violation.

Legal Consequences of Violating Break Laws

Employers should be aware of the legal consequences they may face for break law violations:

  1. Back Pay for Unpaid Meals & Rest Break Premiums: Employers may be required to pay affected employees their missed or improperly provided breaks. Employers are required to pay premium wages as compensation, one hour's pay at the employee's regular rate per day.

  2. Civil Penalties: The state labor agencies may impose civil penalties on employers who violate break laws. These penalties can vary depending on the severity and frequency of the violations.

  3. Wage Statement Penalties: If break law is violated, it is common for the affecting employee's wage statements to be found as inaccurate. Employers would not have correctly included these premiums in the affected employees' pay stubs. Employers will face penalties $50 for the initial pay period, $100 for subsequent pay periods, up to $4,000 per each affected employee.  

  4. Waiting Time Penalties: Because employers are considered not paid these break premiums, they are also obligated to pay penalties for not paying them on time. Employers will face late payment penalty calculated by employee's daily average wage for each day the wages are not paid, up to a maximum of 30 days.

  5. Class Action Lawsuits: Employees who have been affected by break law violations may choose to file class-action lawsuits against their employer, potentially leading to significant financial liabilities.

  6. Legal Costs: Employers may be responsible for covering the legal costs and attorney's fees of the employees, on top of their own attorneys' fees, who filed break law violation claims against them.

  7. Government Audits: Violations may trigger investigations and audits by state labor agencies, such as the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) or the Employment Development Department (EDD). These investigations can be time-consuming and may result in additional penalties and fines.

Consult Our Office Today

Navigating California's intricate meal and rest break laws is a challenge for employers. With years of experience, I have helped countless California employers understand the nuances of break laws and when exceptions may apply.

If you have questions or concerns about meal and rest break compliance or any other employment law matters in California, reach out to me today. My expertise in California employment law can help protect your business from costly violations and legal consequences. Contact us today by filling out our ONLINE FORM or calling us at (310) 769-6836 to schedule a free consultation and put your employment law worries to rest.

About the Author

Grace H. Gil, Esq.

Grace H. Gil is a California attorney specialized in business, employment and real estate law. She has handled a wide range of civil and business disputes and transactions. Ms. Gil has worked at law offices handling various business litigations. She also worked as an in-house counsel and handled various business affairs most business owners face.

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