For most of us, a lunch break during the work day is needed to keep going the rest of the afternoon. However, for some employees, questions arise as to what they are entitled to by law. Federal law does not require that lunch breaks be given to employees but many state laws do mandate such breaks. Pursuant to the California labor law lunch breaks statute, the general rule for meal periods is that no person may be employed for a work period of more than five hours without a meal period of no less than 30 minutes. However, the meal period may be waived by mutual consent if a work period of not more than six hours will complete the day’s work. Unless the employee is completely relieved of duty, the meal period must be considered time worked. Also, if employees must eat on the premises, a suitable place for that purpose must be designated.
According to the California labor law lunch provision, when you are given a meal break, you must be completely relieved of all work related duties and be free to leave your work environment. If you have to answer the phone, watch the store, listen to a presentation, or perform any other work related items, you are not being given a proper meal break and are entitled to additional pay. When you are given a proper meal break and perform absolutely no work related duties during the break and are free to leave your work environment, then the time does not need to be paid for.
You should note that there are very few situations were the job does not actually permit a meal break. For instance, if you are a security guard at a remote location, it would not be realistic to stop guarding for 30 minutes while you take a break. In such a case, if you had a written agreement, you could work through your meal period. On the other hand, if you work in a small store and are the only one watching the store, this would likely not qualify. The reason is that you could simply close the store and take your meal break. It should be noted that most jobs where you work with other people who can cover your shift for 30 minutes will never qualify for the “on duty” meal period.
The most common violation of the California labor law lunch break provision is having employees eat at their desk while they continue to work. As you are not relieved of all duties, not only are you entitled to be paid for the time you spend working/eating, but you also receive additional compensation in terms of a meal premium. The additional compensation is equal to one hours pay for every day that you miss a meal break.
Another common violation of the California labor law lunch breaks statute occurs when the employee works more than 10 hours in a day. On these days, the employee is entitled to 2 meal breaks — each lasting at least 30 minutes. In addition, the meal periods must be no more than 5 hours apart. If the employer fails to provide either one of these breaks, you are entitled to an additional hours pay. However, if you don’t get either one, then you still only get the one additional hour of pay, not two hours.
Another common violation by employers is to have the employee take the break at the beginning or end of the shift. For instance, they have the employee just work 7 1/2 hours and then take their lunch break for 30 mins. Rather than return after the 30 mins, they just have the employee go home. This policy is clearly illegal because the law states that you can not work more than 5 hours without a meal break. Thus, if you work 7 1/2 hours without a break, it does not matter if you could take one before or after you clock out — it is still illegal. Only bona fide meal breaks that occur at least every 5 hours are allowed under the law.