Are you Really Getting Your Meal and Rest Breaks?

California Law on Meal and Rest Breaks (2021)

California law generally requires employers to provide their nonexempt employees a 10-minute rest break for every 4 hours of work performed. For example, employees who work:

  • 3.5 to 6 hours a day are entitled to one 10-minute break.
  • 6 to10 hours a day are entitled to two 10-minute breaks for a total of 20 minutes.
  • 10-14 hours a day are entitled to three 10-minute breaks for a total of 30 minutes.

Rest breaks count as worktime and therefore employers may not deduct any pay from the employee’s paycheck for rest periods taken. An employer that fails or refuses to provide the required rest periods must be pay their employee an additional hour of pay at the employee’s regular hourly rate. These protections are meant to protect workers from abusive and overly burdensome working conditions. California law is very clear that employees are entitled to rest breaks and failure to provide one may subject the employer to additional payment of wages and penalties.

California law generally requires employers to provide a minimum 30-minute meal break within the first 5 hours of an employee’s shift. An employee may agree to “waive” the required meal break if the employee’s shift for the day is 6 hours or less. In addition, an employer must provide a second 30 meal break if the employee works more than 10 hours in a particular day.

California employers are generally not required to pay an employee for meal breaks taken. However, if the employee is “on-call”, the on-call time is considered worktime and therefore the employee must be paid for this time even if no work was performed.

But Am I Really Getting My Meal and Rest Breaks?

For a break to count as a true break under California labor law, an employer must relieve the employee of all work related duties. In other words, the employee must be free to do as he or she pleases during this time. If the employee wants to leave the building to go out to lunch, they must be able to do so. If the employee wants to read a book during their rest time, they must be permitted to do so. The employee should not be expected to handle phone calls or other tasks while on break, even minor tasks.

Ex: Tom is an hourly employee who works at a clothing retailer. Tom is asked by his supervisor to be next to the phone while “on break” in case a customer calls. Tom does not receive any calls during this time. Even though Tom did not answer any calls during his “break” time, this time does not qualify as a break under California labor law. Therefore, Tom is entitled to premium pay pay for this missed break.

Ex: Maria is a medical assistant who works at a medical clinic. Maria leaves the clinic during her lunch break to get away from work and unwind. However, as the clinic has gotten busier, Maria is instructed by her supervisor to take her meal breaks on site at the clinic. This is a violation of Maria’s right to a meal break. Maria is allowed to leave the work site during her meal breaks and her employer is not allowed to restrict her meal breaks in such as fashion.

The employer must not expect the employee to perform any work activities during an employee’s break time or impose any other unreasonable restraints. This is especially important in high volume businesses such as restaurants, factories, and medical clinics where employees are faced with continuous work and are expected to work through their breaks or cut their breaks short based on the overwhelming amount of work. However, California employees should know that the law is on their side. Employers are not allowed to discourage or limit employees for taking their breaks even in high-volume work environments.

What are some of the ways California employers and businesses violate the meal and rest period requirements?

  • Not allowing or discouraging workers to leave the worksite during a meal break
  • Interrupting an employee during a meal or rest break with work related issues in person or on the phone
  • Expecting their employees to work through their meal or rest breaks because of the high-volume nature of the work or because other employees skip their breaks as well
  • Not allowing their employees to take their full 30-minute meal break or full 10-minute break
  • Allowing the breaks only later in the day (meal breaks must be provided within the first 5 hours of the employee’s shift)

What can I do if my employer is denying my breaks?

An employee that was not provided meal and rest breaks may file suit or a wage claim against their employer for these violations. An employer that fails or refuses to provide the required meal or rest breaks must be pay their employee an additional hour of pay at the employee’s regular hourly rate. This is known as premium pay.

For example, if an employer did not provide a compliant rest break to an employee for a year’s worth of work (approximately 250 workdays), the employer would have to pay the employee for 250 hours at the employee’s regular rate of pay.

If an employer is wrongfully denying meal or rest breaks, employees may:

  • File a wage claim with the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement or
  • File a lawsuit against the employer

There are strict time limits to filing a claim with the state or filing a lawsuit in court against an employer. It is best to speak with an experienced attorney to discuss your options.


Call Us Today for a Free Case Evaluation. We’re here to help. If your employer failed to provide you with an appropriate meal or rest break, call us today at 1-844-444-9965 for a free and confidential consultation with a skilled California labor rights attorney. If retained, we will fight on your behalf to help you obtain the compensation you are entitled to.