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Although many employees don’t realize this, you have rights when it comes to meal breaks and rest breaks if you work a certain number of hours. California Labor Code 512 is the state statute that grants employees the right to meal and rest breaks and to prevent employers from keeping employees on the clock for too long without some form of a break.

According to this California break laws, non-exempt employees who work more than 5 hours per day are entitled to one unpaid 30-minute meal break that must be taken before the end of the fifth hour of work. Additionally, employees who work more than 10 hours during a day are entitled to a second 30-minute meal break, which can be waived.

Additionally, federal law governing rest and meal breaks can be found in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Strangely, the FLSA does not actually require these breaks to be offered in the first place. However, most employers offer them anyway, and, when they do, this triggers certain FLSA rules and requirements.

Meal and Rest Break Requirements in California

California labor code sets certain requirements for rest breaks, meal breaks, and sleep breaks. These requirements include:

Short Rest Breaks

In California, rest breaks or rest periods are mandatory for employees who are working more than 3 hours and 30 minutes in a day. A rest break of at least 10 minutes must be provided for each 4 hours of work, and these breaks must be counted as paid time. The break must also be given in the middle of the worker’s shift to the extent that is possible.

You can use short breaks to conduct personal business like using your phone, getting a beverage or food item, or going for a walk. Many employers provide a break room where employees can be physically separated from their working space.

Meal Breaks

The California meal break law protects employees who work more than 5 hours in a day are entitled to an unpaid 30-minute meal break, which must begin before the employee has worked more than 5 hours. However, the employee can waive their right to a meal break if they will be working less than 6 hours that day.

Additionally, employees who are working between 10 and 12 hours in a day are entitled to a second unpaid 30-minute meal break, which must begin before the employee has worked more than 10 hours. However, the employee can waive their right to a second meal break if he or she did not waive their first meal break.

During this break, you must be “completely relieved of duty,” or else the California labor law doesn’t count it as a lunch break and must be treated as paid time. This means that, no matter what happens, you have a right to take that time off.

Longer Shifts and Sleep Breaks

For extremely long shifts, additional FLSA rules apply. In California, non-exempt employees who work more than 24 hours or more a day must be paid for sleeping unless certain circumstances are met. Your meal breaks must also be paid.

If you work a long shift under 24 hours, you and your employer may agree that you will have sleep breaks, during which time you will be on-call. These sleep breaks must be paid and must be at least five hours.

Employees Covered Under Labor Code 512

To comply with laws involving the California labor laws breaks, employers must:

  • Relieve their employees of all duties
  • Let the employee leave or do anything he or she chooses for the duration of the break
  • Not impede the worker, discourage the worker from taking a break, or try to dictate where the worker goes

Employers are not required to force workers to take a break. California Labor Code 512 only requires that employees are given the opportunity to take one. Additionally, the labor code only applies to non-exempt employees. A non-exempt employee is one that is entitled to earn federal minimum wage and overtime pay, including those employees in the following occupations:

  • Professional
  • Mechanical
  • Technical
  • Clerical
  • Other similar roles

It does not matter whether a worker is paid on a time, piece rate, by commission, or on another basis. If the worker qualifies as a non-exempt employee, they must be given a meal break. On the other hand, there are certain types of workers that may not quality for a standard lunch break.

The following workers are not covered by the California break laws:

Exempt Workers

An exempt worker is one who is not entitled to overtime pay or protections provided in wage and labor laws, including rest and meal breaks. This includes workers who are employed in administrative, managerial, executive, or professional capacities.

One of the main differences between exempt and non-exempt workers is that the first often receives a salary for their work, while the latter earns an hourly wage. In order to be considered an exempt employee in California, three criteria must be met:

  • The employee spends more than half of their work time performing intellectual, managerial, or creative work.
  • The employee customarily and regularly exercises discretion and independent judgment when performing job duties
  • The employee earns a monthly salary equivalent to at least twice the California minimum wage for full-time employment.

Independent Contractors

California rest and meal break laws also generally do not apply to independent contractors. There are a number of factors that are used to determine whether a worker is considered a non-exempt employee or an independent contractor.

However, it is important to remember that even workers hired as “independent contractors” may actually be in a type of employment relationship that means they are covered by California wage and hour laws, including meal break laws. This may happen, for instance, if a worker is hired as an independent contractor but the employer has significant oversight and control of their work.

Unionized Workers in Certain Fields

California lunch break laws also do not apply to certain unionized employees in the state. This includes unionized workers in certain fields or industries that provide other lunch break requirements. Industries with unionized workers that may be exempt from meal breaks requirements specified in California Labor Code 512 include:

  • Motion picture industry
  • Broadcasting industry
  • Security officers
  • Commercial drivers
  • Wholesale baking industry
  • Construction occupations
  • Electrical, gas, or public utility companies

  • In California, you have the right to a 10-minute paid rest break for each 4 hours you work, and these breaks must be spaced apart rather than clumped together, unless you and the employer agree in writing to something else.

    You also have a right to an unpaid meal break of at least 30 minutes every five hours. During both types of breaks, you have the right to leave the premises. These breaks must also be uninterrupted. While employees have the right to waive up to one meal break per day, employers cannot cancel a worker’s lunch break or tell them to get back to work mid-break.

    If you were denied meal or rest breaks in California, you may be able to sue your employer for denying you your employee rights according to California Labor Code 512. Employers who do not allow employees to take meal breaks will owe the employee one hour’s worth of pay for each meal break that was denied.

    Additionally, workers are also entitled to interest on these wages if they remain unpaid. This is called a “prejudgment interest” and is 10% a year if there was a contract. If no contract existed, the interest rate is 7%, unless another statute further specifies another rate.

    Wage and hour lawsuits against employers for failing to provide meal breaks and rest periods are common. Additionally, they frequently lead to class action lawsuits because the rights of numerous employees are oftentimes violated.

Contact Shegerian & Associates to Discuss Your Situation

If you have a situation at work where you’re not being provided break times, or aren’t being paid for break times that should be paid, you need to speak to one of our qualified employment law attorneys at Shegerian & Associates.

We’ll help you understand the legal rights and options in your specific situation, and, if any violations of the law have been committed, we are fierce in fighting for our clients’ rights. Contact us today for a free case evaluation.

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