California is one of several states requiring employers to provide half-hour lunch breaks to nonexempt employees as long as they work at least five hours during a shift. This period can be waived if the worker agrees and their shift is less than six hours.
Companies must offer a second 30-minute lunch break when workers are on the clock for more than 10 hours a day. A second break can be waived with the employee's consent, but only if they have not voluntarily forfeited the first meal period.
What obligations do employers have for unpaid meal breaks?
California law says companies aren't required to pay for lunch breaks under the following conditions:
- Employees have no work responsibilities during the 30 minutes
- The company doesn't try to control their activities during the break
- The employer does not interfere with or discourage the employee's right to take a meal break
- Employees have a “reasonable” opportunity for an uninterrupted lunch
Workers must be paid for this time when employers violate any of these provisions. Also, “on-duty” workers must be paid for this time if those duties prevent them from getting the above considerations. Health care workers face a few exceptions to this rule.
Who is covered?
Nonexempt employees 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, those who work at least five hours per shift must still be offered a 30-minute unpaid lunch.
Collective bargaining agreements typically spell out meals and other breaks for union workers in specific industries. However, meal requirements in the California Labor Code generally do not apply to legally classified independent contractors.
Remedies for workers whose rights are violated
Failing to offer or allow workers to take meal breaks is just one-way employers violate wage and hour laws. When violations occur, you are entitled to seek what's called “meal period premium pay,” which is equal to one hour of pay at your regular rate.
Employers who violate this provision must pay the premium rate plus the actual time worked for each day that a lunch break is not provided, which could also result in overtime pay. If your employer violates these standards and you are eligible to file a claim with the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, it is advisable to consult with an experienced employment law attorney.