Employees in California are afforded many crucial rights in the workplace by law — including the right to take a 30-minute unpaid lunch break depending on the amount of time worked. Employees may also be entitled to take 10-minute paid rest breaks throughout the day. However, California break and lunch laws are highly nuanced and many variables can come into play.
Under California Labor Code §512(a), employers must provide employees who work more than five hours in a day with a 30-minute unpaid lunch or meal break. But if the shift is not more than six hours, the break can be waived upon mutual consent of the employee and employer. In addition, an employer must allow an employee to take a second 30-minute meal break if they work more than 10 hours in a day. The second meal break can be waived by mutual consent if the total amount of hours worked did not exceed 12 in a day.
Generally, a lunch break must be uninterrupted. In other words, your employer may not require you to be “on call” or “on duty.” Only in limited circumstances can an employer require a worker to remain on duty during their lunch break. If the nature of the work would prevent the employee from being relieved of all duties — and they agree in writing to remain on-site — the employee must be paid their regular rate of compensation during the meal period. (Bono Enterprises, In. v. Bradshaw (1995) 32 Cal.App.4th 968.)
To understand whether the California break and lunch laws apply to you, it’s essential to determine whether you are an exempt or non-exempt employee. Exempt employees must meet certain criteria under California law, including the following:
If an employee satisfies all three criteria listed above, their employer may classify them as exempt and would not have to provide them with paid breaks or overtime. However, they are still entitled to receive their meal breaks by law.
There are many other types of exempt employees, including employees in the computer software field who are paid hourly, and qualified inside or outside salespersons. Workers who are classified as independent contractors are also exempt. California also has rules and exemptions applicable to the healthcare industry, construction, security officers, the movie industry, union workers, and commercial drivers.
While exempt employees in California must satisfy specific criteria — including minimum salary requirements, primary work duties, and the ability to use independent judgment — workers are non-exempt if they do not meet these exceptions. Most workers in California are classified as non-exempt employees.
Non-exempt employees must be provided with the unpaid and uninterrupted meal breaks required under the labor law — as well as a 10-minute paid rest break for every four hours worked. If an employee works 3.5 hours or less, a rest break is not required. Significantly, the law requires that these breaks be taken in the middle of each work period when practicable.
By law, an employer may not deny you your lunch break or cancel it. If you were not given your lunch break, it’s essential to make sure you didn’t waive it by written mutual consent. You are permitted to waive one 30-minute meal break if you work more than 10 hours but less than 12 hours — but your employer must still offer you two 30-minute unpaid breaks. If you work more than 12 hours, you are not permitted to waive either break.
Under California law, if your employer fails to give you the required meal or rest break, they must pay you a penalty equal to an extra hour of work. This means that if they did not provide you with a meal and a rest break, they are required to pay you for two extra hours — an hour for the unpaid meal break, as well as an hour for the paid rest break.
However, it’s vital to understand that an employee does not receive an extra hour of pay for each meal break or rest break not given. Rather, if you worked 12 hours and your employer denied you both your breaks, you would still only be entitled to one extra hour of pay. Similarly, you would only be entitled to one hour of pay for the total amount of paid rest breaks within a day you were not permitted to take.
Employees in California may be eligible to file a wage and hour lawsuit against their employer for failure to provide them with lunch breaks. By pursuing a legal claim, you might be able to recover the monetary penalties you are entitled to receive from your employer, in addition to attorney’s fees, and the costs of litigation.
If a group of employees was denied their legally entitled lunch breaks, it might be appropriate to file a class action lawsuit. In some cases, a wronged employee may also be able to commence a case under the Private Attorney General Act (PAGA). The Act effectively allows an employee to bring a wage and hour claim on behalf of themselves while acting as the attorney general.
If your employer has denied you your lunch breaks, you may be able to pursue legal action to hold them accountable. A skilled employment law attorney will be able to assess your specific case and advise you regarding your legal rights and remedies. Providing reliable representation for clients throughout California, Optimum Employment Lawyers works with aggrieved employees and helps them recover the compensation they deserve. Contact us at (949) 954-8181 to schedule a consultation.