California Break Laws

April 23rd 2024

Understanding the meal and rest break laws in California is essential to creating a conducive working environment, and employers must provide non-exempt workers with the opportunity to take these breaks.

Employers should do everything possible to communicate the legal requirements of California break laws to their employees, as meal and rest break compliance continues to be a source of legal dispute.

In this article, we will discuss the key provisions of meal and rest break laws in California, including break entitlements and other related considerations.

This article covers:

Rest Breaks in California

Under California break law, employers must provide employees with at least a 10-minute rest break for every 4 hours, or at least every 3 and a half hours worked. These rest breaks should be taken in the middle of each 4-hour work period.

Here is a summary of the total rest breaks employees are entitled to for working a specific number of hours.

Number of hours

Entitled breaks
30 minutes to 6 hours 1 break
6 hours to 10 hours 2 breaks
10 hours to 14 hours 3 breaks
14 hours to 18 hours 4 breaks
18 hours to 22 hours 5 breaks

Note: Employers cannot force employees to work, attend a meeting, or stay within the work premises during the break time.

Non-exempt employees who work for less than 3-and-a-half hours are not entitled to rest breaks. However, there is an exception for athletes, swimmers, dancers, skaters, etc., who are engaged in taxing physical activities; they can have interim rest periods while rehearsing. Moreover, for employees working in the construction, drilling, mining, or logging industries, an employer can stagger their rest period to maintain the continuity of the workflow. These types of employees can either make up the missed rest period on the same work day by coinciding it with a meal break or the employer may have to compensate the employee for a 10-minute missed rest period at their regular pay rate.

Meal Breaks in California

Non-exempt California employees must be given a meal or lunch break for a minimum of 30 minutes for shifts longer than 5 hours. Meal breaks in California are unpaid and must begin before the end of the 5th hour during the work period. Meal breaks can be waived if the work day does not exceed 6 hours.

Meanwhile, if employees work more than 10 hours in a workday, they must receive a second 30-minute unpaid meal break. This meal break can be waived, provided that the employee does not work for more than 12 hours that workday and did not waive their first meal break.

Pay for Meal Breaks in California

In California, employers are required to pay employees during the 10-minute rest period. They are not obligated to pay employees during their lunch breaks, however, if the employee must stay on the premises or remain “on duty” during their meal breaks, employers must compensate them.

Break Entitlements in California

Although there are exceptions, most nonexempt employees are entitled to rest and meal breaks in California. Meanwhile, exempt employees are entitled to meal breaks but not rest breaks. Generally, exempt employees are those who:

  • Earn at least twice the minimum wage of a full-time employee and receive a salary on a monthly basis.
  • Have job duties that require regular use of discretion and independent judgment.
  • Have work responsibilities in administrative, managerial, professional, or executive positions.

Some workers are subject to different rest and meal break regulations. For example, employees who perform their job duties outside have the right to take a cool-down rest break in the shade whenever necessary to prevent heat illness.

Moreover, these break laws do not apply to independent contractors or some employees in the healthcare industry. Meal break entitlements also do not apply to unionized industries that are under collective bargaining agreements for a separate schedule. These industries include:

  • Construction
  • Commercial drivers
  • Security officers
  • Movies and motion pictures
  • Electrical or gas companies

If you want to know more about the entitlements of employees, you can read our guides on your rights as a salaried employee in California, and your rights as an hourly employee in California.

Breastfeeding Breaks in California

Pursuant to Labor Code Section 1030, every employee who needs to express breast milk for their infant child is entitled to a breastfeeding break. The break time should run along side other break times provided by the employer.

Furthermore, under Labor Code Section 1033, employers that deny a breastfeeding break or a comfortable break to express milk may face a fine of 1 hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate for each violation. In addition, employees may report a violation of the lactation accommodations law to the Labor Commissioner’s Bureau of Field Enforcement (BOFE). After an investigation, BOFE may issue a citation for $100 for each day the employee was denied reasonable break time or adequate space to express milk.

Penalties for Employers in California Denying Breaks

If an employer fails to provide meal or rest breaks or denies breaks to its employees, they can be penalized under California break laws. Under the legislation, employers must pay the employee for one extra hour at their regular hourly rate for each violation on each workday. If the employer fails to pay, the employee can file a wage claim with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement

Hence, employers have to keep time records when non-exempt employees are provided with their meal periods. Accurately time-tracking employees’ working hours safeguards employers from the presumption that they did not provide the meal period and ensures employees are provided with the entitlement.

Employers can only claim they have provided the legally mandated break if the following applies:

  • The break is uninterrupted.
  • Employees are relieved of all their work duties during the break.
  • Employers allow employees to leave the work premises for meal breaks.
  • Employers do not discourage or prevent breaks.

Meal breaks only count and are unpaid if they meet these requirements. However, on-duty meals are necessary for some industries. If the nature of the work requires employees to be on the premises while on break, they must be compensated. 

Moreover, employers must not force an employee to take a meal or rest break. Employers are only mandated to provide a reasonable opportunity for the employees to take a break; choosing to waive the break opportunity is up to the employee.

Break Obligations for Employees with Disabilities in California

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are mandated to provide disabled employees with reasonable accommodations, including breaks. Employers must remember that there is no standard for “reasonable accommodation,” as every disabled employee has different requirements. Hence, reasonable accommodation depends on the agreement between the employer and the employee.

Rest Day Requirements in California

The California Supreme Court clarified the rest day requirement employers must provide to their employees. Under Labor Code Section 552, employees are prohibited from working more than 6 days in a 7-day work week. However, there are two exceptions:

  • The nature of work reasonably requires employees to work 7 or more consecutive days if, in each calendar month, the employee receives days of rest equivalent to 1 rest day in 7.
  • Total hours of employment do not exceed 30 hours in any week or 6 hours in any day thereof.

Labor Code Sections 551 and 552 must be implemented on a weeklong basis, not a 7-day rolling basis. Employers should assess the structure of their current workweeks to ensure that they uphold the Labor Code’s day-of-rest restrictions.

Learn more about California Labor Laws through our detailed guide.

Important Cautionary Note

This content is provided for informational purposes only. While we make every effort to ensure the accuracy of the information presented, we cannot guarantee that it is free of errors or omissions. Users are advised to independently verify any critical information and should not solely rely on the content provided.