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An Employer’s Guide to California Meal and Break Laws

By Timerack

February 17, 2022

All employers in the Golden State must be extremely vigilant when it comes to complying with California meal break laws. If employers fail to abide by these laws then costly litigation is a real possibility. 

Therefore, having the whole workforce on the same page, from the senior management team to your general staff, is essential. The ever evolving landscape of these laws can be a tough road to navigate. So in this guide to California meal break laws we provide a complete overview of current legislation and what this means for employers.

However – please note – the information contained in this guide should not be construed as legal advice. To ensure your policies are in compliance with the relevant legislation, you should seek independent legal advice. 

Here’s what we’ll cover in the guide:

California Meal and Rest Break Laws Overview

California has a lot of nuance to its labor laws in a general sense, and especially in regards to lunch and break laws. What industry you operate in, unions, and types of employment status can all affect how these laws apply to your company and workforce. 

California Meal Break Laws

The Department of Labor confirms that under California State Law, adult employees in the private sector are entitled to the following meal breaks:  

  • ½ hour, if work is for more than 5 hours per day, except when workday will be completed in 6 hours or less and there is mutual employer/employee consent to waive meal period. On-duty meal period counted as time worked and permitted only when nature of work prevents relief from all duties and there is written agreement between parties. Employee may revoke agreement at any time.
  • An employer may not employ an employee for a work period of more than 10 hours per day without providing the employee with a second meal period of not less than 30 minutes, except that if the total hours worked is no more than 12 hours, the second meal period may be waived by mutual consent of the employer and employee only if the first meal period was not waived.

A key point to note in the above meal law is the term “on-duty”. If an employee is not relieved of their work during the entirety of the meal period then this is classed as an on-duty meal period. This is counted as hours worked and an employee must be paid for this time at their regular rate of pay. 

On-duty meal periods are only permitted when the nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of their responsibilities. For example, a security guard or a gas station employee that works alone and cannot leave their post.

Any and all of these circumstances require a written agreement between the employer and employee for an “on-the-job” paid meal period. The agreement must include a clause which allows the employee to revoke the lunch break agreement at any time, if desired. IWC Orders 1 -15, Section 11, Order 16, Section 10

California Rest Period Laws

The Department of Labor confirms that under California State Law, adult employees in the private sector are entitled to the following rest periods:

  • Paid 10-minute rest period for each 4 hours worked or major fraction thereof; as practicable, in middle of each work period. Not required for employees whose total daily work time is less than 3 and ½ hours. This includes paid “recovery period” which means a cool down period afforded an employee to prevent heat illness.

Exempt Workers from California Meal Break Laws

There is something known as the “white collar exemption” which exempts certain executive, administrative and professional employees from rest break laws in California. There is stringent criteria that determines which employees fall into this exemption, which break down as follows: 

  • Have primary duties that are executive, administrative or professional (this generally means that 50% or more of his/her work time must be devoted to such tasks);
  • Regularly and customarily exercise discretion and independent judgment at work; and
  • Earn a salary equivalent to at least twice the state minimum wage for full-time (40 hours/week) work.  

Employees that meet this criteria are exempted from meal and break law requirements. 

Also – there is a common misconception that all salaried employees are exempt and hourly wage employees are covered by California break laws. This is not the case as all exemptions are judged on the above criteria.  

California Meal Break Laws Exemptions

The California lunch laws contain a few exemptions, which are mostly based on the industry that your company falls under. 

The major exemption is for the motion picture and broadcasting industry. In this case the regulation does not change much, but it is worth noting. Employees of these industries “may work no longer than six hours without a meal period of not less than 30 minutes, nor more than one hour.” 

Additionally, companies in the wholesale bakery industry have their lunch laws governed by an Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Order in accordance with a collective bargaining agreement. 

California Break Law Exemptions

Whereas meal breaks in California are relatively straightforward when it comes to exemptions and caveats, the exemptions around rest periods are a little more complicated. 

Here’s a list provided by the California Department of Industrial Relations:

  • Uniform application to industries under 15 Orders, including agriculture and household employment.
  • Employees at 24-hour care residential care facilities may have their rest periods limited due to their working conditions and patients. 
  • Excludes professional actors, sheepherders under Agricultural Occupations Order, and personal attendants under Household Occupations Order.
  • Additional interim rest periods required in the motion picture industry during actual rehearsal or shooting for swimmers, dancers, skaters or other performers engaged in strenuous physical activity.
  • Under all Orders, except for private household employment, Division of Labor Standards Enforcement may grant exemption upon employer application on the basis of undue hardship, if exemption would not materially affect welfare or comfort of employees.

Penalties for Breaking California Meal and Break Laws 

Non-compliance with California’s meal and break laws could lead to serious consequences for your business. The fines per employee break down as follows:

  • Meal breaks: One hour’s wages for each day without a meal break
  • Rest breaks: One hour’s wages for each day without a rest break

Also, in a recent ruling in Ferra v. Loews Hollywood Hotel, LLC, the California Supreme Court unanimously held that employees missing any meal or rest breaks will result in the employer having to pay a “regular rate” for that time missed. 

This is something to note because of the fact that the regular rate of pay includes all non discretionary payments, bonuses, commissions, and shift differentials. This is a retroactive ruling. Therefore, employers may now be subjected to litigation based on the conclusions of the California Supreme Court’s ruling.

Tips for California Meal and Rest Break Compliance

In order for your company to remain in compliance with California meal and rest break laws, you must first educate management and your general workforce about the rules. This should be included during the onboarding process for all new hires and updates should be sent to all employees periodically. 

Also, every employer in California should create an employee handbook regarding these meal and break laws. An employee handbook covering these rules and regulations will not only clarify the situation for everyone, but avoid possible litigation in the future. 

Lunch Lockouts

A further step that many California based businesses are adopting are “lunch and break lockouts” in their time and attendance systems. This is where employees are prevented from clocking back into their shift after a break period if their mandated break time hasn’t fully elapsed. 

This provides employers with complete peace of mind, as not only does it prevent workers from skipping any of their mandated break periods, it also keeps an audit trail that can be called upon at a later date.    

Here at Timerack, our time and attendance systems provide California lunch lockouts that can be fully customizable to each employer’s specific requirements. What’s more, we provide workplace terminals and mobile app based time and attendance platforms that enable you to remain in compliance with both on-premises and remote employees. 
To find out more information, contact us for a demo today.



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