Understanding California’s lunch break laws

California is one of a handful of states that requires employers to provide nonexempt workers with a 30-minute uninterrupted meal break if they work at least five hours during a shift. The meal break can only be waived by mutual consent when a shift is less than six hours.

A second 30-minute uninterrupted meal break must also be offered by employers when employees work more than 10 hours per day. Both parties can agree to waive the second lunch period, but only if the worker has not already waived the first meal break.  If an employee works shifts of 12 hours or more an employee cannot waive a second meal break.

What obligations must employers meet?

Employers are not required to pay workers for a lunch break, as long as they meet the following legal provisions:

  • Workers are relieved of all duties for the 30-minute period
  • The employer exercises no control over their activities
  • The employer does not discourage or hinder the worker’s right to take a meal break
  • Workers must be given a “reasonable” opportunity to take an uninterrupted lunch

Employers that violate any of these provisions must pay workers for their time. Additionally, workers are considered “on-duty” and must be paid when the nature of their job prevents them from receiving the above considerations. There are minor exceptions to this rule for health care workers.

Who is covered under the lunch break law?

Nonexempt workers – those who qualify for the minimum wage and overtime pay – are entitled to meal breaks or paid breaks in certain circumstances. While exempt workers do not qualify for paid meal breaks, employers must still offer them a 30-minute uninterrupted unpaid lunch if they work at least five hours.

Unionized workers are not covered in specific industries where collective bargaining agreements outline the terms of lunch breaks. Additionally, meal requirements in the California Labor Code do not apply to workers who are legally classified as independent contractors.

What happens when an employer fails to offer a lunch break?

Failing to offer or allow workers to take a meal break is one of many ways employers violate wage and hour laws. If your employer doesn’t allow you to take a meal break, you are entitled to receive one hour of compensation at your regular rate – which is called meal period premium pay.

Employers must pay the premium rate in addition to the actual time worked for each day that a lunch break is not provided. If they fail or refuse to do so, an experienced wage and hour attorney can help you file a claim against your employer either on an individual, class, or representative basis.

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