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California Employees and Paid Meal Breaks


In California, are all employees entitled to a paid meal break or a paid rest break? While there are no meal or rest break requirements under federal law, California state law does have laws regarding employees’ breaks and rest periods – and hefty implications for employers who do not follow these laws.

Bona Fide Meal Periods and California Law 

Under California Labor Code Section 512, “an employer may not employ an employee for a work period of more than five hours per day without providing the employee with a meal period of not less than thirty minutes.”  There is an exception to the meal period when the employer and the employee agree: “if the total work period per day of the employee is no more than six hours, the meal period may be waived by mutual consent of both the employer and the employee.”

What about a second meal period? Under California law, if an employee works for more than 10 hours in one day, then an employee is permitted to have a second meal period that is at least 30 minutes long. Like the first required meal period, through mutual consent from the employer and the employee, this second meal period can also be waived. To be clear, if you work for more than five hours per day in the state of California, then you are entitled to a meal period of at least 30 minutes.

In general, there is an exception to the meal period requirement under California law. Specifically, for employees who work in the motion picture industry, there is a requirement of a meal period of at least 30 minutes (but not more than one hour) every six hours on the job. In addition, when the previous meal period has ended more than six hours ago, the employee is entitled to another meal period of “not less than 30 minutes, nor more than one hour.”

Meal Period Must Involve Complete Rest from Job Duties 

To sum up, California law requires that employer provide meal breaks (while federal law does not). Similar to federal requirements concerning “bona fide” meal periods, the meal breaks must involve complete rest from work. Otherwise, the meal time may be compensable.

Rest Break Obligations and Requirements for California Employers

Does an employer need to ensure that an employee takes a meal break, or does the employer simply need to ensure that a meal break is available to workers? This question—and the specific requirements of employers with regard to meal breaks—has been a contested issue in California workplaces and California employment law for quite some time. However, a 2012 California Supreme Court case clarified what is required of employers.

In Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, the court held that employers are not required to ensure that an employee takes a meal break. Indeed, an employer is not compelled to ensure that employees take meal breaks or that employees cease all work during their meal periods. What obligations does an employer have under Brinker? Employers are required to:

  • Provide employees with an uninterrupted 30-minute meal break in which the employer is relieved of all work duties;
  • During the meal break, the employee is allowed to come and go as she pleases;
  • First meal break must be given after no more than five hours of work; and
  • Second meal break must be given after no more than 10 hours of work.

To be clear, an employer absolutely needs to provide a meal break that is duty-free for workers, but the employer is not required to “police” the meal break to ensure that workers actually take these break periods and cease all work-related duties during their meal breaks. In addition to meal breaks, employers also need to know that they must provide uninterrupted 10-minute rest breaks for every four hours of work. The Brinker case clarifies that employers do have some latitude in deviating from this obligation depending on a worker’s shift times as well as other factors, but employers still have an obligation to provide rest breaks in the middle of an employee’s work period.

What Are the Remedies Available When an Employer Will Not Provide Required Meal Breaks or Rest Periods? 

The California Department of Industrial Relations emphasizes that employees do have recourse when employers are not permitting meal periods or rest breaks. Specifically, the employee can file a wage claim through the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement. There is, however, a three-year statute of limitations for filing a claim for an alleged meal period violation. If your employer retaliates against you for filing a claim, you can file an additional discrimination or retaliation complaint through the Labor Commissioner’s Office or you can file a lawsuit. Retaliation is prohibited under California law.

There are serious consequences for employers who fail to provide required meal breaks or rest periods. The following are penalties associated with violations:

  • Missed meal break: for every workday that the employer fails to provide a required meal period, the employer owes the employee an additional hour of regular pay.
  • Missed rest break: for every rest break that is not given (or even if the rest break is interrupted), the employer is required to pay the employee one hour of pay in the employee’s next paycheck.

What happens if the employer fails to provide both a meal break and a rest period in the same day? In the California Court of Appeal case United Parcel Service v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, the court ruled that the employee is entitled to two separate remedies. In other words, the employer owes one hour of pay for each violation, so a meal break and rest period violation can mean that the employer owes two hours of pay. Furthermore, employers can owe penalties in addition to wages.

An Amazon worker has filed a claim for failure to provide required meal breaks and rest periods, and is seeking class-action status.

If you have questions about meal period requirements under California law or think you were denied your rights to a meal break, you should speak with an experienced California wage and hour lawyer about your concerns.




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* Cathleen Scott is licensed to practice in Florida only.

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