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Californians Have a Legal Right to take a Meal Break

  • What is a meal break, and how does it work?

    Did you know there are 30 states that do not require any meal breaks? Luckily, California is one of 20 states that does grant employees a right to take a meal break.  California Labor Code §512(a) states in part: An employer shall 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 30 minutes, except that 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 employee.”   According toLabor Code §512(a), nonexempt employees are entitled to one meal break for every 5 hours they work. More specifically, employees should receive their meal break before the end of their fifth hour of work. So, if you start your shift at 9 a.m., you should be allowed to take a meal break by 1:59 p.m.  This meal break must be no less than 30-minutes.   The California Supreme Court has clarified that for employers to comply with meal period requirements, employers have an affirmative obligation to provide meal periods, but need not ensure employees take them.  Five requirements must be met for an employer in California to comply with statutorily required meal breaks for non-exempt employees:
    1. Relieve employees of all duties;
    2. Relinquish control over employees' activities;
    3. Permit employees a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break;
    4. Not impede or discourage employees from taking uninterrupted 30-minute breaks free from all work duties; and
    5. Commence the meal period any time prior to the expiration of 5 hours or work for the first meal period and 10 hours of work for the second meal period.
      During an unpaid meal break, California law requires employers to relinquish any control over how employees spend their break and relieve employees of all duties, including the obligation to remain “on call.”In California, employers are out of compliance with statutory meal break requirements if they coerce employees to not take breaks or create incentives for employees to skip meal periods.  See Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (2012) 53 Cal. 4th 1004, 1040 – 1049.  

    Meal break waiver

    According to California Labor Code §512(a), if an employee works for less than 6 hours total per day, then both the employee and employer can mutually agree to waive the employee’s right to a meal break.  

    Second meal break and waiver

    If an employee works for more than 10 hours per day, then they are entitled to a second meal break that is no less than 30 minutes. According to CA Labor Code §512(a), this second meal break may be waived if the employee (1) works less than 12 hours total for the day and(2) did not waive their first meal break. For example, if you work from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. (11 hours total) and did not waive your first meal break, then you can waive your second meal break.  

    How much are you owed if you were denied a meal break?

    According to California Labor Code §226.7(c), if certain conditions are met, employers should pay the employee one additional hour of pay, at the employee’s regular rate, for each workday that a meal break was missed. This is known as “premium pay.”  For example, if a supervisor asks an employee to work through lunch, that employee is entitled to be compensated with premium pay.  

    Paid meal break

    Unlike rest breaks, employers are not required to provide paid meal breaks. However, employers and employees may agree to provide paid meal breaks given the nature of a particular job.  For example, a security guard is usually the first to respond to emergency situations, so they may have an agreement with their employer to be “on-call” while on their paid meal break.  

    Contact an experienced Los Angeles Employment Lawyer with questions if you are being denied meal breaks

      In summary, nonexempt employees who work and live in California have a right to one 30-minute meal break for every 5 hours of work.  This means they also have a right to a second meal break after 10 hours of work. Moreover, employers are required to relieve employees of all duties during their meal break.  Lastly, employees and employers may agree to waive the employee’s right to a meal break under certain requirements.   If you feel like you have been denied your right to meal breaks because you were forced to work through them, or they were not made available, then you should speak to an experienced employment lawyer to get some help.

If you think you have been wrongfully terminated, or have had your rights as an employee violated, please feel free to contact