California Meal and Rest Break Law (2023)
You May Be Entitled to Substantial Labor Code Penalties if Your Employer Didn't Give Breaks
The rule of thumb under California meal and rest break law is that employers must provide a paid rest break for every 4 hours of work and an unpaid meal break every 5 hours. Each rest break must be at least 10 minutes, and each meal break must be at least 30 minutes.
The penalty an employer must pay for violating California meal and rest break law is 1-hour’s wages for each day a rest break wasn’t given, and an additional 1-hour’s wages for each day a meal break wasn’t given. If an employer never provides meal or rest breaks, California labor law empowers employees to collect a total of 2-days’ worth of wages for every workday for the past 3 years. In sum:
- California meal penalty (2023) = 1 hour’s wages for each day without a meal break
- California rest penalty (2023) = 1 hour’s wages for each day without a rest break
- Total break-time penalty (2023) and damages = 3x normal hour’s wages if no breaks provided
Question about California meal/rest break law?
When do I get a rest break under California break law?
Although the general rule of thumb for California break law is that employees get a paid 10-minute rest break for every 4 hours of work, what happens if an employee works less than a full 4-hour period?
The California labor code, Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, and California courts have said that during the first 4-hour period, if the employee works at least 3.5 hours, you round up (to 4). A rest break is required. During every subsequent 4-hour period, you round up if the employee works at least 2 hours.
Example: John works 7-hour shifts in California. Is he entitled to 1 paid rest break or 2? Answer. John is entitled to 2 paid rest breaks. Because he works more than 6 hours, you round up to 8 hours for determining rest breaks.
Chart Summarizing California Rest Break Law
The below chart summarizes California rest break law on when breaks are required, and when to round up vs. round down when the employee works a partial shift. Remember: 1 rest break = 10 minutes. And rest breaks = paid time.
|How long is your shift?||Number of Rest Breaks You’re Entitled To|
|Less than 3.5 hours||0 rest breaks|
|3.5 – 4 hours||Rounded up: 1 rest break|
|4 hours exactly||1 rest break|
|4 – 6 hours||Rounded down: 1 rest break|
|6 – 8 hours||Rounded up: 2 rest breaks|
|8 hours exactly||2 rest breaks|
|8 – 10 hours||Rounded down: 2 rest breaks|
|10 – 12 hours||Rounded up: 3 rest breaks|
|12 hours exactly||3 rest breaks|
|12 – 14 hours||Rounded down: 3 rest breaks|
|14 – 16 hours||Rounded up: 4 rest breaks|
|16 hours exactly||4 rest breaks|
|16 – 18 hours||Rounded down: 4 rest breaks|
|18 – 20 hours||Rounded up: 5 rest breaks|
|20 hours exactly||5 rest breaks|
|20 – 22 hours||Rounded down: 5 rest breaks|
|22 – 24 hours||Rounded up: 6 rest breaks|
|24 hours exactly||6 rest breaks|
When do I get a meal break under California break law?
Under California labor law, employers must allow their employees to take a 30-minute meal break after every 5 hours of work. Meal breaks are unpaid, but must be uninterrupted, and employees must generally be permitted to go off-site for their meal.
Example: John works 18-hour shifts in California. How many meal breaks does his employer have to give him? Answer. 3 meal breaks. After the first five hours of work, John gets a break for breakfast. After he’s worked another five hours, he gets a lunch break. And after he’s worked another five hours, he gets a break for dinner. But, because he spends 1.5 hours of his 18-hour shift on meal breaks, John will be paid for only 16.5 hours of work.
Chart Summarizing California Meal Break Law
When calculating how many meal breaks an employee gets, California break law does not include the time spent during an earlier meal break. For example, an employee who works 8 am to 5:30 pm, with one 30-minute meal break, has only worked 9 hours, and therefore isn’t entitled to a second meal break.
The below chart assumes that if a meal break is offered during a work-shift, that it is taken. And the chart counts the meal break as part of the “shift.”
|How long is your shift?||Number of Meal Breaks You’re Entitled To|
|Less than 5 hours||0 meal breaks|
|5 – 10 hours||1 meal break|
|10.5 – 15.5 hours||2 meal breaks|
|16 – 21 hours||3 meal breaks|
Do I have to take my meal and rest breaks under California labor law?
No, California employees do not have to take their meal and rest breaks. Employees can choose to keep working through their breaks. But rest breaks are paid, so there’s no direct monetary benefit to skipping rest breaks. In contrast, meal breaks are unpaid, so an employee who chooses to skip meal breaks may get paid for more hours, or can end their workday earlier.
The choice has to be the employee’s. An employer cannot pressure workers to skip breaks—whether by directly asking workers to skip or imposing deadlines that are impossible to meet without skipping breaks.
The rule under California break law is that an employer must give employees a “reasonable opportunity” to take meal and rest breaks, during which the employer:
(1) relieves the employee of all job duties;
(2) relinquishes control over what the employee does with their time; and
(3) does not impede or discourage the employee from taking a break.
Can my employer force me to take meal and rest breaks in California?
Yes. Larger employers are often very cautious about avoiding penalties under California meal and rest break law. To ensure that managers are giving employees time for breaks, some employers configure their time-clock software to forcibly clock-out workers for a 10-minute rest break every 4 hours, and a 30-minute meal break every 5 hours. It’s generally not illegal for an employer to force workers to clock-out at set intervals, unless the employee is required to be on-call during that time, or cannot leave the premises, or is pressured by a manager to keep working through the break.
Employees who are forcibly clocked out for breaks, but are pressured by managers to keep working, may have a claim under California off-the-clock work law.
Common Questions about California Meal and Rest Break Law
(1) Are meal breaks paid in California?
The general rule under California labor law is that meal breaks are unpaid. But if the employee is required to stay on the work premises or be on-call during the meal break, then it generally must be paid.
Paid Meal Break Example #1: John works as a security guard in California. His job involves sitting in front of security monitors and checking them for suspicious activity. His employer lets him take a meal break every five hours, but he has to stay and keep watching the monitors. Is John entitled to be paid for his meal break? Answer. Yes, he is still on-duty during his meal break, so it must be paid.
Paid Meal Break Example #2: Thomas works as a private-prison guard in California. He’s allowed to leave the prison for a meal break every 5 hours, but he has to stay on-call and keep his radio on, in case other guards call for “backup.” Does Thomas need to be paid for his meal-break time? Answer. Yes, Thomas remains on-call during his meal break, so it must be paid time.
Paid Meal Break Example #3: Elsa is a secretary at a law firm. She is required to attend mandatory lunch meetings at noon every Monday. And she is required to attend a monthly training seminar during lunch on the first workday of every month. The company provides free lunch during the meetings and seminars. Does Elsa need to get paid for time spent at lunch meetings and seminars? Answer. Yes, because the lunch meetings and seminars are mandatory, Elsa must be paid for those meal “breaks.”
(2) Can you work more than 6 hours without a break in California?
Yes, if you want to. During a 6-hour shift in California, an employer must provide one rest break (10 min) and meal break (30 min). But the employee can choose not to take those breaks, if the choice is made freely – without undue influence from the employer.
(3) Can I sue my employer for not giving breaks in California?
Yes, employees denied meal and rest breaks can sue their employers in a court of law. They can even file a class action on behalf of other employees denied meal and rest breaks. Employees can recover the paid time they should have received during rest breaks; a rest-break penalty of one hour’s pay for each day without a rest break; and a meal-break penalty of an additional hour’s pay for each day without a meal break.
(4) Can I waive my lunch break in CA?
Yes, but only if you work 6 hours or less. California employees can sign a waiver with their employer, stating that they will not get a meal break, as long as their shift is under 6 hours. Such waivers are not permissible if the employee works more than a 6-hour shift. Your employer should not be asking you to sign a lunch break waiver in California if you work more than 6 hours.
(5) Can I work 5 hours without a lunch break in California?
Yes, your employer doesn’t have to give you a lunch break during a 5-hour shift. California break law requires employers provide a lunch break every 5 hours. But if your shift ends after 5 hours, you have the option of eating lunch after your shift or just going home.
Rest Breaks and California Overtime
If an employer in California does not provide rest breaks, employees who work 8-hour shifts may be entitled to 1.5x their regular rate of pay for the rest-break time they should have been provided. California overtime law requires time-and-a-half pay for work over 8 hours per day, and rest-break time must be added on top of other paid time.
California Break Law: Exemptions and Exceptions
California rest and meal break laws generally apply to nonexempt workers in California. Exempt workers, such as certain executives, computer employees, administrative workers, and medical and legal professionals, are not covered by the state’s rest and meal break laws.
Special rest and meal break rules also apply to employees in the following industries:
- Group-home care
- Heavy duty operations (e.:drilling, logging, and mining)
- Motion pictures
- Professional driving
- Electrical, gas, and other utilities
California Rest Breaks: Example Cases
|ABM Security Services Rest Break Lawsuit||Security guards sued their employer, a private security company, for failing to provide uninterrupted rest periods. The guards were required to stay on-call, by radio and/or pager, during their rest breaks. On summary judgment, the trial court awarded $90 million to the security guards. The California Supreme Court upheld the award on appeal. In upholding the award, the California Supreme Court states that for rest breaks:
California law requires employers to relieve their employees of all work-related duties … including the obligation that an employee remain on call. A rest period, in short, must be a period of rest.
|Walgreens Rest Break Lawsuit||California workers sued Walgreens for failing to provide adequate rest breaks. The cases settled for $23 million.|
|Red Lobster and Olive Garden Rest Break Lawsuit||Current and former workers at Red Lobster and Olive Garden sued the restaurants’ parent company, GMRI, in California. The case settled for $9.5 million.|
California Meal Breaks: Example Cases
|Chili’s and Maggiano’s Meal Break Lawsuit||Chefs, busboys, servers, and hostesses at Brinker-owned restaurants (Chili’s and Maggiano’s) sued their employer for failing to provide them with meal and rest breaks, as required under California law. The case settled for $56.5 million.|
|AT&T Meal Break Lawsuit||California retail salespeople and assistant store managers of AT&T sued the company for making them work through meal and rest breaks, including by understaffing AT&T stores, essentially forcing employees to work through their breaks. The case settled for $8 million.|
Learn More about California Labor Law
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California Meal & Rest Break Penalties Add Up
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