Meal Break Laws in California 

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.

Contact a California Overtime Attorney Today

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.