21 Nov 23

“Meal and Rest Break” Laws for California Employees

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Meal and Rest Break Laws for California Employees

California has strict laws regarding meal and rest breaks for employees. These laws are designed to ensure that employees get adequate time to rest, eat, and recharge during the workday. Failure to provide proper breaks can result in significant penalties for employers. This article will provide an overview of California’s meal and rest break requirements.

Meal Breaks

When Are Meal Breaks Required?

In California, nonexempt employees (those covered by wage and hour laws) must be provided a 30-minute uninterrupted meal break if they work more than 5 hours in a day


. The first meal break must occur no later than the end of the employee’s fifth hour of work


.For example, if an employee begins work at 9 am, they must start their meal break by 2 pm (which is 5 hours into their shift).A second 30-minute meal break is required if an employee works more than 10 hours in a day


. The second meal break should occur no later than the end of the 10th hour of work.Employees who work no more than 6 hours in a day may waive their first meal break if both the employer and employee agree to the waiver in writing


. However, the second meal break cannot be waived if an employee works more than 10 hours.

Nature of Meal Breaks

Meal breaks in California must be uninterrupted and duty-free


. This means employees must be free from all work responsibilities and employers may not require them to remain on-site. Employees should be allowed to leave the premises if they wish.Employers satisfy their obligation to provide meal breaks when they:

  • Relieve employees of all duties
  • Relinquish control over employee activities
  • Allow employees a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break
  • Do not discourage employees from taking their meal break

Any work done during meal breaks makes them “on-duty,” meaning employees must be paid.

On-Duty Meal Breaks

On-duty meal breaks are only permitted under limited circumstances:

  • The nature of the work prevents being relieved of all duty
  • There is a written agreement between the employer and employee
  • The employee is paid for the on-duty meal break

Given the strict requirements, on-duty meal breaks are uncommon outside of jobs like security guards or sole workers unable to leave their posts.

Penalties for Missed Meal Breaks

If an employer fails to provide a proper meal break, they owe the employee one additional hour of pay at their regular rate of pay for each workday a violation occurred.For example, if an employee worked three 10-hour days in a week and was denied a second meal break each day, they would be owed 3 hours of additional pay (one for each day a violation occurred).These premium wages must be paid at the employee’s regular rate, which may be higher than their normal hourly wage due to bonuses and commissions.

Rest Breaks

When Are Rest Breaks Required?

California law requires that nonexempt employees receive a paid 10-minute rest break for each 4 hours worked or major fraction thereof.This works out to:

  • 1 rest break for shifts from 3.5 to 6 hours
  • 2 rest breaks for shifts from 6 to 10 hours
  • 3 rest breaks for shifts from 10 to 14 hours

The rest breaks should occur in the middle of each work period to the extent possible.

Nature of Rest Breaks

Rest breaks must be uninterrupted and duty-free, just like meal breaks. Employees must be relieved of all work responsibilities and free from employer control.Employers may not require employees to stay on-site during rest breaks. However, unlike meal breaks, rest breaks must be paid.

Penalties for Missed Rest Breaks

If an employer fails to provide a proper rest break, they owe the employee one additional hour of pay at their regular rate of pay for each workday a violation occurred.For example, if an employee worked an 8-hour shift and was denied both rest breaks, they would be owed 2 hours of additional pay.

Other Break Rules

Here are some additional rules regarding meal and rest breaks in California:

  • Breaks may not be combined (a 10-minute rest break cannot be used to shorten a meal break)
  • Employers may not encourage employees to skip breaks or put pressure on them to do so
  • Employers must provide suitable resting facilities for employees unable to leave the premises
  • Additional industry-specific break rules may apply (such as in agriculture or healthcare)

Enforcement and Litigation

Employees who are denied proper breaks can file wage claims with the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) . The DLSE will investigate the claims and can order employers to pay owed wages and penalties.Given the strict break rules, meal and rest break violations have also been the source of significant litigation in California. Class action lawsuits by employees have resulted in multi-million dollar settlements against employers.

Key Takeaways

  • Nonexempt employees are entitled to an uninterrupted 30-minute duty-free meal break if they work over 5 hours.
  • Employees working over 10 hours must receive a second 30-minute duty-free meal break.
  • Employees are entitled to a paid 10-minute duty-free rest break for each 4 hours worked or major fraction thereof.
  • Missed or non-compliant breaks can result in an additional hour of pay as a penalty for each violation.
  • Employers may not coerce, pressure or discourage employees from taking meal and rest breaks.

Ensuring proper breaks is crucial for California employers seeking to comply with state labor laws and avoid costly litigation. With strict requirements and heavy penalties, employers should closely review their policies and practices regarding meal and rest breaks.


California Meal and Rest Break Rules – DLSERest Breaks and Meal Breaks – Legal Aid at WorkCalifornia Chamber of Commerce Guide to Meal and Rest BreaksMeal and Rest Break Calculator