Complying with California’s Rest and Lunch Break Laws
Complying with California’s Rest and Lunch Break Laws

A common pitfall for employers in California is not adhering to the state’s strict requirements to provide employees with appropriate meal and rest breaks. Non-exempt workers (as a general rule, this is anyone who would be entitled to overtime pay) are entitled to a 30-minute meal break on workdays that are longer than five hours and an additional 10-minute break for every (approximately) four hours worked. In other words, in a “standard” eight-hour day, employers should be providing their non-exempt workforce with at least two 10-minute paid rest breaks and one 30-minute unpaid meal break.

Rest Breaks

Though “one rest break for every four hours” is a good rule of thumb, it’s important for employers to be aware of the exact break timing requirements under the law.  The first shift length to be aware of is at three and one half hours, as an employee who works a 3.5-hour shift is entitled to one 10-minute rest break. The next shift length to be aware of is six hours, since at that point, an employer is required to provide two rest breaks. Similarly, at ten hours, the employee is entitled to three breaks.

Each break should be positioned as much as is practicable in the middle of each work period. For example, an employee who works a full eight-hour day must get a meal break at roughly hour four of their shift, as well as two rest breaks, one in the first half of the day (before their meal) and one in the second half (after their meal).

But the length and timing of these breaks isn’t the only thing for business owners to be aware of. For instance, it’s also important to know that that rest breaks must be paid breaks. Even though an employee is to do no work during this time, employers are not allowed to deduct this time from an employee’s paycheck. Additionally, the time provided for a rest break must be consecutive. This means that employers can’t split a 10-minute rest break into two five-minute breaks; the employee needs to be provided with the full, uninterrupted ten minutes. Finally, even though these rest breaks are short, recent a California Supreme Court decision has suggested that employees must be allowed to leave the work premises during their rest breaks.

Meal Breaks

As discussed above, any employee who works over five hours in a given day is entitled to a meal break. This meal break should be at least 30 minutes long, and it needs to start before the end of the fifth hour of the employee’s shift. In situations where the work day is only six hours long, businesses and employees can agree to waive the meal break requirement. Like rest breaks, meal breaks must be consecutive, and the employee must be allowed to leave the business premises, but unlike rest breaks, the time provided for meal breaks is generally unpaid. On-duty meal breaks, where the employee is paid to work through their meal, may only be provided in limited circumstances; generally, employers need to provide off-duty, unpaid meal breaks.

Just like with rest breaks, additional meal breaks must be provided to employees who work longer-than-standard shifts. Specifically, employees working over ten hours in a day are required to have a second meal break before the tenth hour. Similar to the first meal break, employees and employers can agree to waive the second meal break if the shift is no longer than twelve hours and the employee took their first meal break.

Avoiding Penalties for Non-Compliance

As a business owner, you have to make sure to encourage people to take advantage of their breaks. While employees can choose to work through a break, managers should not force or even encourage them to do so, since this encouragement can land the business into legal hot water. Indeed, employers have an obligation to ensure employees are aware of their right to take meal and rest breaks, rather than just assuming that employees know what’s available to them. One great way to do this is to have an employee handbook, drafted by your business attorney, that lays out these policies.

The penalties for failing to provide meal and rest breaks are often more severe than business owners expect. In fact, employers must pay a full extra hour of pay to any employee who has missed a required break, for each break that’s missed. To learn how to avoid these penalties, or if you need an attorney to help you put together an employee handbook that outlines your business’s break policies, reach out to the team at Chase Law Group, P.C. by calling (310) 545-7700 and set up a consultation.