Time for Lunch: Employees’ Rights to Meal Breaks Under California Labor Law
While federal law does not require an employer to give employees any meal or rest breaks during the workday, California law, on the other hand, affords workers certain legal protections in this area. To be precise, Section 512 of the California Labor Code states that as a general rule, when an employee works more than 5 hours per day, the employer must “provide” a meal break of at least 30 minutes.
Now there are some caveats. Notably, if the total workday is no more than 6 hours, the employer and the employee may waive the meal break requirement “by mutual consent.” On the other hand, if the workday lasts more than 10 hours, the employer is required to provide a second meal break–again, for at least 30 minutes. This second meal period may also be waived by mutual consent if the employee works less than 12 hours.
There are also special rules governing certain industries. For example, employees in the motion picture industry are entitled to a meal break at least once every 6 hours. That is to say, a new meal period must begin no later than 6 hours after the previous one ended.
Do Employees Need to Be Paid During Meal Breaks?
In a 2012 decision, Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court explained that to “provide” a meal period under the Labor Code means the employer “relieves its employees of all duty, relinquishes control over their activities and permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so.” That said, the Court clarified the employer “is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed.” So if an employee voluntarily decides to perform some work during a designated meal period, that does not put the employer in violation of the Labor Code.
So what happens if an employer does commit a violation by failing to give a proper meal break? In those situations, state law entitles the employee to a “premium” wage equal to one hour of extra pay for each day the employer is in violation. However, an employer does not have to pay employees for any time spent on a bona fide meal break.
But here, too, employees need to be aware of their rights. For instance, if the employer requires employees to remain at its facility or work site during the meal period, then they must be paid, even if the employer does not actually require them to do any work.
Employers Must Take Responsibility for Enforcing Meal Breaks
Your employer should include a written meal break policy as part of its employee handbook. Managers are also responsible for ensuring employees take any required meal breaks during the day. It is against the law for any manager to pressure an employee into waiving or “working through” a meal period required by the Labor Code.
If you have additional questions or concerns about meal break rules, contact a qualified California wage and hour attorney right away.