Know Your Rights Surrounding Breaks in California
If you are experiencing a particularly tough shift at work, you may be longing for your meal break. You know that, under California law, you get at least 30 minutes to take a break, have your meal, and do something other than work. However, your job is especially busy today, and your boss has just informed you they need you to work through your lunch.
You may be wondering: Can my boss do this? Aren’t I entitled to a meal break free of work?
For the well-being, sustainability, and productivity of employees, meal and rest breaks make perfect sense. They are also required under California law for non-exempt employees, with specific rules on when and for how long they are given. Many employees will be entitled to at least one 30-minute, unpaid meal break in a typical shift. Many are also entitled to a 10-minute, paid rest break for every 4 hours worked in a shift.
Still, some bosses will attempt to ask you to work through your breaks, or at least be “on-call” should you be urgently needed. Below, we cover the truth about rules surrounding “working through lunch” and other breaks.
When Can My Boss Deny a Meal or Rest Break?
Generally, never. If you are a non-exempt employee, California employers are required to give you a 30-minute, unpaid meal break if you work at least 5 hours in a single shift. You can voluntarily choose not to take your meal break (and collect paid time instead) if your shift does not exceed 6 hours. A second, unpaid 30-minute meal break is required if you work longer than 10 hours, but you can choose to omit one of the two meal breaks if you do not work more than 12 hours. The first or only meal break must begin within the first 5 hours of the shift.
Again, it is important to emphasize that only you can choose to waive your meal period, and only if you meet the criteria for doing so. Employees often choose to do this because the legally mandated meal periods are unpaid. Your boss cannot compel you to do so, however, just because your workplace is busy or there is more work than usual. Only you can make that decision.
There are two important caveats to consider, however. The first is that your boss is not obligated to let you leave the worksite for your meal period. They must only not expect you to conduct any job duties for the duration of the break. This can be relevant in remote work locations, sites that have sensitive materials, or situations where time-consuming safety protocols must be followed to enter and exit a site. Your boss simply must give you the opportunity to take a minimum of 30 minutes to eat a meal.
The second caveat is that your boss is not obligated to control what you do on your meal break. They are not required to monitor your activities and make sure you are actually eating your meal versus doing additional work. In other words, if you independently choose to continue to work during your meal break, that is not your boss’s responsibility. They still cannot attempt to coerce you into voluntarily doing so. Regardless, you must still clock your meal break on a timecard. Not doing so can result in your boss receiving meal penalty fines, which will likely lead to discipline.
Paid breaks can vary job-to-job. Some workplaces will allow you to take them when convenient, while others will require your boss to give permission. Regardless of your system, you are entitled to at least 10 minutes of paid rest for every 4 hours you work in a shift. Again, your boss cannot necessarily control what you do on your rest break; they cannot stop if you choose to continue working. Be aware that a boss who tacitly compels an employee to continue working during breaks without outright ordering it is still tantamount to denying them breaks.
Are There Legitimate Reasons My Boss Can Ask Me to Continue Working?
There may be special circumstances where your workplace is slammed, a deadline is looming, or some other special factor has led to your boss respectfully asking if you would consider working through your lunch. You do have the ability, if you so choose, to agree to work or remain “on duty” through the meal break. You must agree to work through the break in writing, and you have the ability to rescind the agreement at any time you choose.
Most critically, you must be paid for any meal periods in which you are expected to do work or be on call. This often disincentivizes bosses to consistently have their employees work during meal breaks, and you should remind them of this point should they attempt to not pay you. This is also why it is critical that an agreement to work through meals be put in writing and signed by both parties, as it can help you collect unpaid wages if problems develop.
The only instance where an employer can compel you to work through a lunch break is if the nature of your job and incidental circumstances make no other solution possible. A good example of this is if you work as a security guard and your colleague called out sick, meaning you are the only one on duty. Since you are the only person available to conduct the job, you may be obligated to work through lunch. Again, though, you must be paid for the time worked.
Because rest breaks are already paid, there is no benefit to working through one other than denying yourself a moment away from your duties. Your boss cannot ask you to relinquish rest breaks.
What About Exempt Employees and Unionized Workers?
If you are an exempt employee, which is common for salaried administrative workers and executives, you face very few regulations on how, when, and for how long you take breaks. Because you are paid a flat salary versus an hourly rate, you can generally take meal periods whenever is most convenient for you and your boss. You are still entitled to a meal break free of job duty obligations, however.
Unionized workers often have their own rules and regulations governing meal and break periods. In most circumstances, rules of a union overrule those of the state. If you are unclear on the rules surrounding meal breaks and penalties, you should consult your union representative.
What Can I Do If My Boss Is Forcing Me to Work Through Breaks?
The good news is California law is very clear on penalties for breaking the rules governing meal and rest breaks. The state’s Labor Code states that employers will be compelled to offer 1 hour’s pay for every break that was denied to an employee. Forcing an employee to work through a break, other than in the exceptions discussed above, is considered denying a break. In other words, if you worked at a job that always forced you to work through lunch for, say, 100 days, your employer could be on the hook for at least 100 hours of backpay.
You may also be able to seek other monetary damages, especially if your employer retaliated against you for refusing to work through breaks or reporting a violation. At Polaris Law Group, our team has over 25 years of legal experience in helping employees exercise their rights in the workplace and recover unpaid wages.
To see if you have a case, dial (888) 796-4010 or contact us online.