California Laws Related to Work Breaks & Meals

Instructor: Ian Lord

Ian has an MBA and is a real estate investor, former health professions educator, and Air Force veteran.

The State of California requires employers to offer breaks for rest and meals when employees work a certain number of hours. In this lesson we will review the standards for breaks as well as the consequences for failure to comply with the law.

California Work Break and Meal Laws

Steve recently opened a small diner in Northern California that mostly serves the local tourists. Now that his business has grown to the point where he has to hire employees, one of his scheduling considerations is planning time off for his workers' state mandated rest and meal periods. Let's take a look at the State of California's rest and meal break requirements.

The State of California requires that Steve's nonexempt employees have paid breaks for rest and an unpaid period for a meal when they work a certain amount of time in a shift. A nonexempt employee is a worker who is not exempt from the laws permitting employers to not pay overtime to certain employees. In other words, the break laws cover the many workers in the state who are eligible for overtime pay if they exceed the normal work limits.

Rest Breaks

If Steve schedules an employee for three and a half hours or more, that employee is entitled to a paid 10 minute break. The law requires a paid 10 minute break for every major portion of a four hour period worked. The courts have interpreted this to mean that anything over two hours requires a paid rest period. Ideally, employees will take their breaks as close as possible to the middle of the four hour period. Steve can require his employees to remain on the restaurant premises during the break because the worker is still being paid.

Meal Breaks

In California an employee must be given the opportunity for time to eat a meal if he or she works for more than five hours. Steve needs to ensure that his employees have the opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30 minute meal break before the fifth hour of work is completed. He is obligated to see that his employees are released from work duties and interruptions. He cannot discourage or prevent his employees from taking a meal break. If the employee is scheduled to work less than six hours, Steve and the employee may mutually agree to waive the unpaid meal period.

A 10 hour or greater workday requires Steve to offer a second 30 minute unpaid meal period. The second meal break can be waived by mutual agreement if the employee works less than 12 hours and has not waived the first meal break.

Under very rare conditions Steve might consider using paid meal breaks. This is only permissible if the work situation doesn't allow his employee to be relieved from duties and the employee agrees to it in writing. Employees can revoke this agreement as they wish unless they are employed in certain agricultural occupations. Steve should be cautious about paid meal breaks as these have rarely been upheld as legal by the courts.

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