The labor standards for meal and rest breaks have long imposed peculiar and specific requirements for employees. Unfortunately, compliance with the guidelines is a source of confusion for employers, leading to costly litigation if not followed correctly. To cover all the bases, employers should do all they can to inform employees of the legal requirements of California’s break laws. They should also be sure to provide them with opportunities to take their break.

Keep in mind that there may be certain job exceptions that follow different rules depending on the industry. Therefore, it is always helpful to check on the wage orders that apply to particular workforces.

Meal Breaks in California

What is a Meal Break?

A meal break is an unpaid, uninterrupted time provided to employees to spend on personal business such as errands, meals, or anything they choose. Employees are not required to eat during this time. Under California’s meal break law, an employer must provide employees with unpaid meal breaks for every 5 hours of work put in. The meal break must be uninterrupted and without duty for at least 30 minutes. The employer must provide the meal break no later than the end of the fifth work hour.

For example, if an employee’s shift begins at 8 a.m., their meal break would have to be scheduled before 1 p.m. Similarly, an employee working more than ten hours in one shift is entitled to a second 30-minute meal break. The employer must provide a second break no later than the end of the tenth work hour.

Meal Break Requirements

To provide a lawful meal break, employers must do the following:

  • Relieve employee of all duties
  • Relinquish control of the employee’s activities
  • Permit a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute minimum break

Additionally, there are several things employers are not permitted to do the following;

  • Discourage or prevent workers from taking their meal breaks
  • Create an incentive for employees to skip a meal break
  • Create a culture that encourages skipping breaks

It is important to remember that although an employer must provide a meal break, they are not required to ensure that an employee takes said break.

Can I Waive my Rights to a Meal Break?

An employee working six hours or less in one shift may waive their right to a meal break. Waivers for meal breaks do not need to be in writing, but both parties must consent to the waiver. If the employee’s shift is more than ten hours but does not exceed 12 hours, they can waive their right to a second meal break as long as they take the first meal break—an employee cannot waive both breaks in one workday. Employees working through a meal break are not entitled to leave work early.

On-Site Meal Breaks

In some work environments, only one employee is on call at a time, making it difficult to leave the site for a meal break. In these instances, the employer must provide a suitable place to eat with pay, even if the employee is relieved of their duties. For overnight shifts, the employer must facilitate employees to hot food and beverages. Employees can take on-duty meal periods only in certain limited circumstances. An on-duty meal break must meet all of the following conditions:

  • It is permitted only when the nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duty
  • Must be agreed to in writing by you and the employee
  • Must be paid
  • The employee can revoke at any time in writing, except under Wage Order 14 (Agricultural Occupations)

Recent Legal Decisions on Meal Breaks

Recent cases have addressed the rights to a meal break and other detailed aspects such as the duration of rest breaks and whether employees must be relieved of duty during breaks.

In 2012, the California Supreme Court’s crucial decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court questions whether employers must enforce meal breaks or simply provide breaks? The California Supreme Court ultimately ruled in Brinker’s favor – upholding that employers do not have to ensure employees take their meal breaks. Once the meal period is provided, employers are not obligated to police meal breaks or ensure no work is being done.

Similarly, in 2016, the California Court of Appeal decision in Rodriguez v. E.M.E., Inc. provided reference answers. In this case, E.M.E. gave one 20-minute rest break and one meal break per eight-hour shift due to the nature of the work and the clean-up time required at each interval. The Court of Appeals responded to Rodriguez’s class-action suit with the decision that employers may depart from the Wage Order schedule. (i.e., a rest break in the middle of each four hours or a significant fraction thereof) However, the departure from the Wage Order schedule is only permitted when;

  • It will “not unduly affect employee welfare”, and
  • “Is tailored to alleviate a material burden” on the employer that would result from using the Wage Order schedule

Rest Breaks in California

Section 226.7 of the Labor Code states that employers can’t demand employees to work during breaks mandated by order of the Industrial Welfare Commission. The I.W.C., in turn, has directed (in Section 12(A) of the Wage Orders) that:

Every employer shall authorize and permit all employees to take rest periods, which insofar as practicable shall be in the middle of each work period. The approved rest period time shall be based on the total hours worked daily at the rate of ten (10) minutes net rest time per four (4) hours or a major fraction thereof.

In other words, California requires employers to provide employees with ten-minute rest breaks for every four hours worked. Anything over two hours is a “major fraction” of a four-hour period. For example, an employee who works a seven-hour shift is entitled to two 10-minute rest breaks—one break for the first four hours and a second break for the last three hours. Thus, three hours is a “major fraction” or more than half of four hours.

A valid rest break must be;

  • 10 consecutive and uninterrupted minutes
  • provided with “suitable resting facilities” in an area separate from restrooms
  • paid (unlike meal breaks, rest breaks are paid)

Timing of Rest Breaks

Although the Wage Order has been determined, some areas of the meal and rest breaks are still unclear – specifically the timing of the rest breaks. An employee should take a rest period in the middle of the workday “insofar as practicable.” Likewise, employers cannot require employees to remain on-site or on-call during rest breaks. Although employees may choose to skip rest breaks, employers cannot pressure or encourage employees to waive rest breaks.

Contact Pride Legal

If you have any questions regarding California labor laws or would like to discuss your case confidentially, we invite you to contact us at Pride Legal. To protect your rights, hire someone who understands them. Do not hesitate to take action in the face of employer misconduct.