California Labor Laws: Meal & Rest Breaks (2023)

In this guide, you'll learn about California labor laws pertaining to meal and rest breaks, who they apply to, and how to stay compliant in 2023.
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Time Tracking Fundamentals
Understanding Labor Laws
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Time Tracking Fundamentals
Understanding Labor Laws
GPS Tracking
Tracking More Than Time
Time Tracking Benefits
Choosing A System
Implementing A System

Employees Never Miss A Break With Workyard

Are you providing enough rest breaks? California labor laws require a specific amount of time off for employees.

If you’re an employer looking to learn more, you’re in the right place. 

The federal government sets most labor laws. However, California’s additional labor laws, which are some of the most stringent in the country, can make it challenging for employers to keep up with all the regulations.

To begin, it’s important to note the distinction between meal and rest breaks. 

California law entitles nonexempt employees to both meal and rest breaks during their workday. Meal breaks are typically longer, lasting at least 30 minutes, and are unpaid. On the other hand, employers must pay employees for shorter rest breaks, which last around 10 minutes.

Meal breaks provide employees with an opportunity to eat and recharge, while rest breaks allow them to briefly step away from their workstations. Providing these breaks is a legal requirement and a moral obligation for employers to ensure their employees’ well-being and productivity.

In this guide, we’ll take a deep dive into the requirements and exceptions for meal and rest breaks under California labor laws. We’ll also cover who is entitled to breaks, the consequences of noncompliance, and the best ways to ensure compliance.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about complying with California labor laws for meal and rest breaks.

California Labor Law Meal Break Requirements

Meal breaks are essential for employee health and productivity, and it’s your responsibility as an employer to ensure that your employees are receiving the required breaks. 

Meal Breaks Under California Law

California labor laws define meal breaks as unpaid breaks of at least 30 minutes that employers must provide to employees who work more than five hours a day.

Employers must provide employees who work more than 12 hours a day with a second meal break of at least 30 minutes. During this break, employers must relieve the employee of all work duties, and the employee is free to leave the premises.

See the table below for a full breakdown of meal break requirements. 

California Meal Break Requirements

Hours Worked
Meal Breaks Required
Less than 5
No meal break required
5 or more
1 meal break of 30 minutes or more
12 or more
2 meal breaks of 30 minutes or more

Note: These requirements apply to non-exempt employees or those who are eligible for overtime pay. Depending on their job duties, exempt employees may not be entitled to meal breaks. We’ll discuss this in more detail later. 

As an employer, it’s your responsibility to ensure that your employees are taking their meal breaks. Failure to provide meal breaks can result in legal action and financial penalties. 

Additionally, if an employee chooses to work through their meal break, their employer must compensate them for that time.

What happens if an employee doesn’t take their meal break?

If an employee doesn’t take their required meal break, employers must provide them with an additional hour of pay at their regular rate of pay for each day they didn’t receive the meal break. This additional hour of pay is called a meal break premium.

Make sure that your employees are taking their meal breaks to avoid any legal issues. To help remind employees to take their breaks, you can implement break schedules or provide reminders through a timekeeping app.

Can an employee waive their meal break?

In some cases, employees may choose to waive their meal break if their shift is less than six hours. However, this waiver must be voluntary and in writing. If an employee waives their meal break, they must still be provided with a rest break of at least ten minutes for every four hours worked.

To avoid any legal issues, it’s crucial to properly document any meal break waivers. Additionally, employers should never pressure employees to waive their meal breaks or penalize them for taking their required breaks. We’ll discuss this in more detail below.

California Labor Law Rest Break Requirements

Rest breaks are short time periods during the workday when an employee can rest and recharge.

Rest Breaks Under California Law

California law requires employers to provide paid rest breaks of at least ten minutes to employees who work more than four hours in a day.

Employers must relieve employees of all work duties during their rest breaks. However, rest breaks are different from on-duty and on-site meal breaks. 

Sometimes, employers require employees to remain on duty and perform work duties during their meal break. This is known as an on-duty meal break. On the other hand, on-site meal breaks are meal breaks taken on the premises where the employee must still be relieved of all work duties.

On-duty and on-site meal breaks do not count toward rest break requirements.

See the table below for a full breakdown of rest break requirements. 

California Rest Break Requirements

Hours Worked
Rest Breaks Required
Less than 3.5 hours
No rest break required
3.5 to 6 hours
1 rest break of 10 minutes
6 to 10 hours
2 rest breaks, both of 10 minutes
10 to 14 hours
3 rest breaks, all of 10 minutes each

Similar to meal breaks, these requirements apply to non-exempt employees. Depending on their job duties, exempt employees may be entitled to rest breaks. It’s also your responsibility to ensure that your employees are receiving their required rest breaks. 

Employers must compensate employees who choose to work through their rest break for that time.

What happens if an employee doesn’t take a rest break?

Employers must provide employees who don’t receive their required rest break an additional hour of pay at their regular rate of pay for each day they didn’t receive it. This is commonly known as a rest break premium.

Can an employee waive their rest break?

Unlike meal breaks, employees cannot waive their rest breaks. Rest breaks are mandatory and must be provided to eligible employees. Failure to provide rest breaks can result in legal action and financial penalties.

Which California Employees Are Entitled to Meal and Rest Breaks?

In this section, we’ll go over the requirements for various types of employees, including exempt and nonexempt employees, independent contractors, and unionized employees. 

We’ll also discuss any industry exceptions to the meal and rest break requirements.

Exempt vs Nonexempt Employees

California law mandates that nonexempt employees be entitled to meal and rest breaks. Nonexempt employees are hourly workers who are eligible for overtime pay. 

Meal and rest breaks may be mandated for exempt employees based on their job duties. Exempt employees include managers, executives, and other employees who meet the following criteria:

  • Receive a salary instead of hourly pay
  • Primarily perform executive, administrative, or professional duties
  • Exercise discretion and independent judgment in their work

If an exempt employee’s job duties do not meet these criteria, they may be entitled to meal and rest breaks, just like nonexempt employees.

Independent Contractors

California labor laws do not mandate that independent contractors receive meal and rest breaks. Independent contractors are considered self-employed, so they are responsible for taking their own breaks.

Note: Misclassifying employees as independent contractors can result in financial penalties. If you have any questions about the classification of your workers, consult with a labor law attorney or the California Labor Commissioner’s Office

Unionized Employees

Unionized employees may have different meal and rest break requirements than non-unionized employees based on their collective bargaining agreement. Collective bargaining agreements are contracts negotiated between employers and unions that establish terms and conditions of employment, including meal and rest breaks.

If you have unionized employees, review the collective bargaining agreement to understand the meal and rest break requirements for those employees.

Industry Exceptions

There are some industry exceptions to the meal and rest break requirements in California. For example: 

  • The motion picture industry: If the nature of an employee’s work permits them to take intermittent rest breaks equivalent to the required rest breaks, the employer is not required to provide the specified rest breaks. Additionally, if the production requires an immediate response to a production necessity, the employer may postpone meal periods but must provide another meal period as soon as possible.
  • The broadcasting industry: A broadcast operation employee may receive meal breaks and rest periods at different times than specified by the law if they are covered by a collective bargaining agreement that meets certain criteria, as long as the total break time is the same as required by the law.

As an employer, be sure to review industry-specific labor laws as they relate to your business to understand any exceptions that might apply to your employees.

For information on California labor laws regarding meal and rest breaks, check out this video.

Can California Employees Waive Their Right to Meal or Rest Breaks?

In some cases, employees may choose to waive their right to breaks. 

In this section, we take a deeper dive into how California employees can legally waive their right to meal and rest breaks.

Waiving Meal Breaks

Employees may choose to waive their meal break if their shift is less than six hours. 

However, this waiver must be voluntary and in writing. If an employee waives their meal break, they must still be provided with a rest break of at least ten minutes for every four hours worked.

To avoid any legal issues, business owners must ensure proper documentation of any meal break waivers. Additionally, they should never pressure employees to waive their meal breaks or penalize them for taking their required breaks.

Waiving Rest Breaks

Unlike meal breaks, employees cannot waive their rest breaks. 

Rest breaks are mandatory and must be provided to eligible employees. You should ensure that your employees are taking their required rest breaks to avoid any legal issues. As an employer, it’s your responsibility to ensure that eligible employees are provided with their rest breaks.

Employer-Set Break Schedules

Under California labor laws, employers have the right to set an employee’s break schedule. 

This means employers can determine when and how long employees take their meal and rest breaks. If an employee doesn’t comply with the employer’s break schedule, the employer has the right to discipline or terminate the employee for insubordination.

You should clearly communicate break schedules to your employees and make sure that you are providing the required breaks. You should also have a process in place for employees to request accommodations for their breaks, like if they have a medical condition that requires a different break schedule.

Legal Challenges to Meal and Rest Break Waivers

Despite the ability for employees to waive their meal breaks in certain circumstances, there have been legal challenges to the practice. 

In 2012, the California Supreme Court ruled in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court that employers must provide meal breaks to nonexempt employees but are not required to ensure that employees take those breaks.

This ruling was later clarified in Augustus v. ABM Security Services, Inc., which held that employers cannot require employees to remain on-call or carry pagers during their rest breaks. The court ruled that rest breaks must not include any work-related duties.

What Are the Consequences for Failing To Provide Breaks in California?

Failure to provide meal and rest breaks required by California law can result in legal consequences for your business.

In this section, we will explore the potential consequences an employer would face for failing to provide employees with meal and/or rest breaks in California.

Financial Penalties 

If an employer fails to provide its workers with meal or rest breaks, California law requires them to compensate the worker with an additional hour of pay at their standard hourly rate for each day of work.

Class Action Lawsuits

If an employer fails to provide breaks to a large number of employees, they could face a class action lawsuit. In these cases, multiple employees join together to sue the employer for not providing the required breaks.

Legal Fees

Employers may have to pay for the legal fees of employees who file successful claims for missed rest breaks and meal periods in California.

This was confirmed in the court case Betancourt v. OS Restaurant Services, in which the state of California required the restaurant to pay over $280,000 in legal fees for their former employee. 

The law that allows this is called California Labor Code section 218.5, and it states that, if an employee wins a case regarding unpaid wages, they can ask for their legal fees to be covered too.

Reputational Damage

Failing to provide required breaks can also result in reputational damage for employers. 

This can lead to negative reviews, decreased customer loyalty, and difficulty attracting new talent.

Criminal Penalties

In some cases, employers who intentionally and willfully violate break requirements may face criminal penalties. This can include fines and even imprisonment.

How Can Employers Comply with California Labor Laws?

Compliance with California labor laws related to meal and rest breaks is essential to avoid legal consequences and maintain a positive workplace environment. 

In this section, we’ll explore how employers can comply with California labor laws, including the use of time-tracking apps.

Understanding California Labor Laws

The first step to complying with California labor laws is understanding the requirements. 

To recap, California labor laws stipulate that nonexempt employees must receive a 30-minute meal break for every five hours worked and a 10-minute rest break for every four hours worked. 

Employers must provide employees with a reasonable opportunity to take breaks and ensure that they are relieved of all duties during their breaks.

Using a Time-Tracking App for Compliance

While it is possible for employers to manually track employee work hours and break times, using a time-tracking app can help ensure compliance with labor laws. 

Here are some reasons why you should consider a time-tracking app like Workyard for your business.

1. Rest and Meal Break Reminder Alerts

Workyard provides automated alerts to remind employees to take their meal and rest breaks at appropriate times during the workday. 

This feature will help you to make sure that employees are taking their required breaks and that your business is complying with labor laws.

2. Automatic Wage and Overtime Calculations

Workyard automatically calculates employee wages and overtime based on their work hours and break times. 

This feature will help you accurately calculate employee pay and avoid any errors or discrepancies.

3. Accurate GPS Time Tracking

Workyard uses GPS time tracking to accurately record employee work hours and break times. 

This feature will help you ensure that you are complying with record-keeping requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

4. Simplified Record-Keeping

Workyard streamlines the record-keeping process by providing an electronic record of employee work hours and break times. 

This feature makes it easy for you to access and maintain accurate records of employee work hours and breaks.

5. Reduced Administrative Burden

Using a time-tracking app like Workyard can reduce the administrative burden associated with tracking employee work hours and breaks manually. 

This can save time and resources for you to apply to other areas of your business.

So, what are you waiting for? Sign up for a free trial of Workyard today!

Additional Ways to Comply with California Labor Laws

While using a time-tracking app is a helpful tool, there are other ways that you can comply with California labor laws within your business.

1. Provide Clear Policies

As an employer, you should have clear policies in place that outline meal and rest break requirements and consequences for noncompliance. 

You should communicate these policies to all employees and ensure they are easily accessible.

2. Train Employees

You should provide training to all employees on their break rights and the importance of taking breaks during their shifts. 

This can help employees understand their rights and stay motivated to take breaks.

3. Monitor Compliance

You should monitor employee compliance with break requirements and address any violations promptly. 

This can help prevent any potential legal consequences and improve employee satisfaction.

4. Provide Reasonable Accommodations

You should provide reasonable accommodations for employees who have medical conditions that require different break schedules or types of breaks. 

This can help ensure compliance with labor laws while accommodating the needs of individual employees.

5. Consult with Legal Experts

You should consult with legal experts to ensure that your break policies and practices comply with California labor laws.

6. Keep Up with Changes in the Law

California labor laws can change frequently, so employers need to keep up with any changes and adjust their policies and practices accordingly.

The Bottom Line on California Labor Laws

As an employer in California, it is essential to stay informed about labor laws related to meal and rest breaks to maintain a positive and productive workplace environment. 

Employers who take proactive steps to comply with these laws can build trust with their employees and minimize the risk of legal consequences. 

By providing employees with the breaks they are entitled to, employers can improve employee morale, reduce burnout and turnover, and improve their business overall.

If you’re interested in learning more about time-tracking apps like Workyard and how they can help your business comply with California labor laws related to meal and rest breaks, check out our Ultimate Guide to Tracking Breaks.

This guide provides comprehensive information on time-tracking apps and their features, as well as tips for staying compliant with labor laws related to breaks. 

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