California Meal and Rest Break Laws

Nonexempt employees are typically entitled to meal and rest breaks throughout the workday in California. How many breaks you get and how long they last depend on your schedule. Our experienced employment attorneys can help you more fully understand California meal and rest break laws.

Employers cannot expect you to work all day without breaks. California has laws in place to make sure of it. California state labor laws legally require employers to provide nonexempt employees with the time and opportunity to take meal and rest breaks throughout the day.

As an employee, you are owed off-duty breaks where your time is your own. Your employer cannot force you to take your break—but they must provide the opportunity for downtime. Whether you take the fully off-duty break and do no work is up to you.

Here is a breakdown of California’s meal and rest break laws as well as how our California employment lawyers here at Cutter Law can help you if your employer unlawfully deprives you of this time.

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    Meal Break Requirements in California

    Depending on the length of your shift, California employees are entitled to one or two meal breaks a day.

    If you work more than five hours, your employer must give you at least one 30-minute meal break. Your meal break must be given within the first five hours of your shift.

    If you work more than 10 hours, your employer must give you at least two 30-minute meal breaks. Your second break must be given within the first 10 hours of your shift.

    Employers are not required to pay you during your meal break. At the same time, your employer cannot require you to perform job-related duties or stay “on call” during your meal break. Meal breaks must be “off duty” (with limited exceptions).

    To be off duty, a meal break must:

    • Relieve you of all duties
    • Allow you to relinquish control over your activities
    • Give you the opportunity for an uninterrupted 30-minute break

    Your employer also cannot impede or discourage you from taking your lunch break.

    Can I have an “on-duty” meal break?

    Sometimes. However, certain requirements must be satisfied. You may be able to have an on-duty meal break if:

    • Your specific job prevents you from taking a truly off-duty break
    • You and your employer agree to the on-duty meal break in writing

    On-duty meal breaks must be paid, and you have the right to revoke the agreement if you would prefer to move to an unpaid off-duty arrangement.

    Do I have to use my meal break?

    Not necessarily.

    If you work more than five hours but less than six hours, you can decline your meal break. If you work more than 10 hours but less than 12 hours, you can decline a meal break (as long as you took your first break).

    If you want to work through lunch or dinner to increase your paycheck, you may have the right to do so. However, if you work long shifts, skipping your break may not be an option.

    Rest Break Requirements in California

    In addition to meal breaks, you may also be entitled to take time to rest. Under California law, employees must have rest periods lasting at least 10 minutes for every 4 hours worked—or “major fraction” thereof. A major fraction is considered more than two hours.

    In other words, your timesheet doesn’t have to hit an even 4, 8, or 12 hours for you to qualify for a rest period. If you work a 3.5-hour shift, you are entitled to a 10-minute break. If you work an 11- or 12-hour shift, you are entitled to three 10-minute breaks. These are in addition to your meal breaks.

    Typically, the rest breaks should be as close to the middle of each 4-hour work period as possible.

    Unlike meal breaks, employers are required to pay you for these short rest breaks. However, they are still not allowed to ask you to do work or stay on call.

    Photo of a California man taking a meal break

    Are all employees in California entitled to meal and rest breaks?

    No. In California, employees are classified as either “exempt” or “nonexempt.” Only nonexempt employees are covered under the meal and rest break laws in California.

    Exempt employees are typically not subject to California’s wage and hour laws, often because they are salaried white-collar workers who can exercise independent judgment while doing their job. Under California law, exempt employees are not entitled to these meal and rest breaks.

    Nonexempt workers refer to most others, though some employees may be classified as “partially exempt.” In these situations, some wage and hour protections apply, while others don’t.

    Additionally, some union workers may not be covered by California’s meal and rest break requirements because of breaks negotiated in their collective bargaining agreement.

    If you are unsure if you are covered by California’s meal and rest break laws, Cutter Law P.C. can help. Our California employment attorneys can review your wages, job responsibilities, and other factors that may be relevant to your classification.

    What happens if I am denied meal and rest breaks in California?

    If you qualify for meal and rest breaks, your employer is legally required to offer them. They also cannot threaten to fire you, refuse to pay you, or take other retaliatory measures if you exercise your rights under the law.

    So, what happens if your employer doesn’t allow you to take your breaks? You can file a wage and hour lawsuit to recover damages. California law provides that your employer will owe you an hour of pay for every break denied.

    If you were denied 100 breaks over 50 days and make $20 an hour, you would be entitled to $2,000 in damages.

    Trusted California Employment Lawyers Can Help You Seek Damages for Unpaid Meal and Rest Breaks

    Were you entitled to meal and rest breaks but unlawfully denied those opportunities? Has your employer required you to be on call or do light duties during your lunch hour?

    Our California employment lawyers at Cutter Law will help you find justice and receive the money you deserve. By filing a wage and hour claim, you can seek one hour of pay for every violation, hold your employer accountable for their illegal actions, and hopefully, prevent them from putting other workers in the same situation.

    We offer a free consultation and have three offices conveniently located in Sacramento, Oakland, and Santa Rosa, California, to serve you better. Our team is standing by to help, so contact Cutter Law P.C. today.


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