California break law requires that employees who work over 5 hours are entitled to a 30-minute meal break.  During this break, employees must be relieved of all duties. If an employer fails to give a proper meal break, California law states employees can recover one hour of pay at their regular rate of pay for each day they are not provided a proper meal break.

Employees can agree to waive this meal period if the employee does not work more than 6 hours during the workday.  Employees can also agree to an on-duty meal break which counts as time worked and is paid. 

If an employee works over 10 hours a day, they are entitled to a second meal break of at least 30 minutes.  The employee can waive this second meal break if they do not work more than 12 hours and the first meal break was not waived. 

The employee must be allowed to take the meal break off premises if they choose; otherwise the meal break must be paid. 

For further details about California meal breaks, see this page

California’s break laws also require that employees get a rest break of 10 minutes for every 4 hours worked or fraction thereof.  The break should be taken in the middle of each work period, if possible.  Employers can require that employees stay on the work premises during these breaks.  If an employee does not provide these rest breaks, the employee can get one hour of pay for each workday that they do not get the rest period.

Bona fide exempt employees are not entitled to these breaks. When Overtime Doesn’t Apply / Specific Exemptions section

For further details about California rest breaks, see this page.


Murphy’s Law and the California Lunch Break

In 2007, Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc. was considered the most important Employment Law case of the year, with its overall focus on the California lunch break.  This ruling revisited the ground rules originally established under the Fair Labor Act governing previous wage and hour claims over missed break periods, stating that the “additional hour of pay” due employees for who work through meal and rest breaks constitutes a wage and not a penalty.

This landmark California labor law legislation is a victory for employees who seek unpaid wages and waiting penalties for missed meal and rest periods because it extends the one year statute of limitations governing penalty claims to 3 years for wage lawsuits.

Although, on the surface this ruling only favors employees, employers actually have an enormous benefit as well.  Had the court ruled the other way, the biggest problem would have been that it would have criminalized having employees work through lunch.  That is, if the “additional hour of pay” Meal Premium was a penalty, then it would mean that the conduct was illegal.

What this also means is that if the Meal Premium was ruled as a penalty, and missing meal periods was illegal, then an employee could not be terminated for refusing to work through a meal break, and any employer who required a worker to work through a meal or rest break would be guilty of a misdemeanor under California Labor Code § 553.

As it stands, the ruling inevitably avoids a large amount of potential issues around the illegality of working through meal breaks.

On the downside for employers, this difference in classification over “wage” and “penalty” now makes employers potentially liable for millions of dollars more in back pay and damages concerning wage and hour laws which now can go back 3 years and in some cases 4.

If you have a question or potential claim concerning California labor laws for lunch breaks, contact an experienced overtime attorney today by submitting our online Case Evaluation Form.

Michael Lore is the founder of The Lore Law Firm. For over 25 years, his law practice and experience extend from representing individuals in all aspects of labor & employment law, with a concentration in class and collective actions seeking to recover unpaid back overtime wages, to matters involving executive severance negotiations, non-compete provisions and serious personal injury (work and non-work related). He has handled matters both in the state and federal courts nationwide as well as via related administrative agencies. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Michael by using our chat functionality.