California Meal Break Law

California Meal Breaks

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California meal break laws, which are just one part of the stringent California labor laws, in general, require that off-the-clock meal breaks are given to most employees working over a 6 hour day. California Meal Break laws state that:

“If an employer fails to provide an employee a meal period in accordance with the applicable provisions of this order, the employer shall pay the employee one (1) hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate of compensation for each workday that the meal period is not provided.” California Code of Regulations, Title 8, §11040. In other words, if an employee is not given a legally required meal break, the employer must pay the employee for 1 extra hour of pay at their regular pay rate.

  • An “off duty” lunch period of no less than 30 minutes should be provided after 5 hours of work.
  • Two “off duty” 30 minute meal periods are to be furnished for those employees working over 10 hours in one day.
  • The proper “off duty” meal period is one in which no work related tasks are performed.
  • “Off duty” meal periods can be waived if the work day is not more than 6 hours long.
  • “On duty” meal periods are those which work is still being performed and, therefore, is considered time worked.
  • “On duty” meal periods can only be provided if the nature of the work prevents an employee from leaving.
  • “On duty” meal breaks are to be provided in a written agreement between employee and employer in which an on-the-job paid meal period is agreed to.
  • It is a violation for an employer to have their employees take their break before or after their shift.
  • If a meal break is provided but an employee chooses not to take it, the employee would not be entitled to the 1 hour penalty. However, the employer may not pressure workers to skip breaks or undermine its’ break policy.  Of course, a worker must be paid for the time spent working through their break.
  • The deadline (statute of limitations) to file claims under the California meal break laws have been affected by the Supreme Court ruling of Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc.

Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc. affects the California Lunch Break

The plaintiff, a store manager for Kenneth Cole, filed an individual wage and hour claim against his former employer seeking unpaid overtime and waiting penalties, as well as, meal and rest period and itemized pay statement violations, because he regularly worked 9 to 10 hour days and rarely took meal and rest breaks. The trial court ruled against Kenneth Cole Productions and, in part, awarded “an additional hour of pay” under California Labor Code section 226.7, and applied a 3 year statute of limitations to this award. The Supreme Court’s ruling upholds the plaintiff’s award of $64,000 for unpaid overtime, missed meal and rest periods and penalties, as well as attorney’s fees of $62,000. The California Supreme Ruling also held that pay for employees missing meals is a “wage” rather than “penalty”, which allows for a 3 yr. statute of limitations, rather than 1 year for “penalty” back pay. Putting it simply, the ruling basically says that you need only to pay an employee an extra amount of money if they work through their lunch break, that missing meal periods is not illegal.

What is the difference between a “wage” and a “penalty”?

While it may seem like a frivolous legal distinction, the difference between “wage” and “penalty” is quite dramatic for several reasons.

  1. On the surface, the case was about whether Meal Premiums could be sued for going back 1 year versus 3 years. Penalty suits have a statute of limitation of one year. Wage suits can go back 3 years.
  2. If the court would have ruled in the other direction, then missing meals would be a criminal offense, meaning if the Meal Premium was a penalty, then it would be because the conduct was illegal.
  3. Because the Meal Premium is defined as “wages”, then it must be used in assessing an employee’s regular rate of pay for overtime purposes.

It is important to note that although the Murphy Court held that Meal Premiums can go back 3 years, it is likely that employees will be able to go back a total of 4 years under unfair competition statutes.

California labor laws are notoriously tricky, as the Top 10 California Overtime employer mistakes show, and the details concerning California meal breaks regulations are no exception. Contact an overtime lawyer if you have a specific question that pertains to you and the California law for overtime enacted for your protection.

California Lunch Break Laws

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.

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