Am I entitled to a lunch break under California employment law?

Frank S. Clowney III

Yes, as long as you are a nonexempt employee working at least five hours during a shift, California law requires employers to provide a 30-minute uninterrupted meal break.

Employers must also not try to control their workers’ actions during these periods. When violations occur, employees may be eligible for compensation, which may include overtime pay.

Employers must meet these legal obligations for meal breaks

Under state law, companies do not have to pay workers for a lunch break unless they fail to meet these legal requirements:

  • The employer has no control over their activities
  • The worker’s rights to a meal break aren’t discouraged or hindered
  • Workers get a “reasonable” opportunity for an uninterrupted break
  • Workers are relieved of all duties during those 30 minutes

When employers violate any of these provisions, they must pay workers for this time. In some cases, the nature of a job prevents a worker from receiving the same considerations. In these cases, employers must pay “on-duty” employees for meal breaks. Some health care workers may be excluded from this category.

Which workers does the law cover?

In most cases, paid or unpaid lunch breaks apply to nonexempt employees – those typically earning an hourly wage. While exempt workers – those receiving a salary – do not qualify for paid meal breaks, they must receive a 30-minute uninterrupted break if they work five or more hours in a shift.

These rules in the California Labor Code do not extend to union workers in specific industries where collective bargaining agreements dictate terms for meal breaks. Also, legally classified independent contractors are not eligible.

Meal breaks can be waived only under mutual agreement by the employee and employer. Employees must receive an additional 30-minute break when they work 10-hour shifts or longer. The second meal break cannot be waived for those working 12 hours or more per shift.

What should I do when my employer violates these rules?

Many employers violate meal break rules purposely or out of ignorance. If this happens to you, contact an experienced employment law attorney. You may be entitled to receive one hour of compensation for each meal break violation – called meal period premium pay.

Employers who violate this wage and hour rule must pay the premium rate in addition to actual time worked for each day that a proper lunch break is not offered. In many cases, this can result in substantial awards against habitual offenders.