Breaking Down the Rules Governing Meal and Rest Breaks for California Employees
Substantial confusion can surround the rules governing whether California employees are entitled to meal or rest breaks while on the clock. There is also often some misunderstanding of whether you are required to be compensated on these breaks.
The truth is it depends. Some employers rely on employees’ misunderstanding of the law to deny them the breaks they are owed, so it is important you understand the rules governing your work environment. Most employees are entitled to some combination of meal and breaks, the exact durations of which are determined by the nature of the job and the length of the shift. Exceptions exist for certain industries and conditions. Below, we explore who is entitled to breaks and when.
Meal and Rest Breaks for Exempt Employees
Specific California regulations govern whenand for how-long non-exempt employees must take their meal and rest breaks. Exempt employees, conversely, face fewer restrictions. Exempt employees are still owed lunch breaks, but they are permitted to take lunch or breaks whenever is convenient. Those breaks must be taken at some point, however, and employers are not allowed to prohibit employees from taking them. There is simply more flexibility on when and for how long the breaks happen.
It is important to define, then, what constitutes a non-exempt employee versus an exempt employee. Exempt employees are a special designation that “exempts” them for following more stringent hour-tracking, including breaks but also overtime pay.
To be considered an exempt employee in California, the following must be true:
- You are paid a salary instead of an hourly rate
- Your salary meets or exceeds double the state’s minimum wage (in California as of 2020, $49,920 annually for companies with fewer than 26 employees and $54,080 annually for companies with 26 employees or more)
- Your job duties are “high-level” responsibilities
Occupations with “high-level” responsibilities include:
- Administrative – office work essential to the operation of a business combined with exercising “independent judgment and discretion” in making decisions without consulting a supervisor
- Professional – specialized work that requires higher educational degrees or training
- Creative Professional – artistic or creative work that relies primarily on the employee’s originality, ingenuity, and talent to conduct job duties
- Computer – specialized work involving a predominantly computer-related role
- Outside Sales – work primarily composed of making sales or obtaining orders outside the premises of the business
If you meet all three requirements of being an exempt employee – meaning you are paid a salary twice that of the state’s minimum wage and have duties that fall under high-level responsibilities – there are minimal rules governing when meal and rest breaks are taken. Your meal and rest breaks are “paid” in the sense that they are worked into your overall salary.
Make sure you are not being misclassified as an “exempt” employee. Some employers will attempt to avoid having to keep timesheets, pay overtime, and track breaks by erroneously insisting workers are “exempt” when they are not. One of the easiest ways to catch potential misclassification is if you are not being paid the minimum salary threshold.
Meal and Rest Breaks for Non-Exempt Employees
Workers who do not meet the above criteria are generally considered “non-exempt” employees, meaning they are subject to California’s rules governing meal and rest breaks. Employers are required to provide meal and rest breaks dependent on the length of an employee’s shift.
A non-exempt employee must take a 30-minute meal break if they work at least 5 hours in a given day. They have the option of waiving a meal break if they are working under 6 hours. If you are a non-exempt employee, you might choose to do this because meal breaks are generally unpaid. Voluntarily forgoing a meal period for a shorter shift means you get paid an extra 0.5 hours at your base rate. The meal break must also be taken in the first 5 hours of the workday.
If you are working at least 10 hours in the same day, you are owed a second 30-minute meal break, for a total of 2 meal breaks. You can waive the second meal break if you are working fewer than 12 hours and did not waive the first meal break.
Rest breaks, unlike meal breaks, are paid. Rest breaks are required to last 10 minutes, and a non-exempt employee should receive one for every 4 hours worked in a day. If an employee works for less than 3.5 hours, they are not entitled to any rest breaks. Rest breaks cannot be waived, and an employee would have no incentive to, anyway, since they are considered paid time. Employers are encouraged to permit rest breaks toward the middle of a shift, if possible, versus “stacking” multiple rest breaks at the beginning or end of a shift.
With all this in mind, consider an example where you are a non-exempt employee working at a manufacturing plant. Your shift is 11.5 hours. You are entitled to 2 separate 30-minute meal breaks. You may choose to take the first but waive the second to collect an extra 0.5 hours of pay. (If you were working 12 hours, you would not be able to do this.) You are also entitled to 2, 10-minute paid rest breaks.
You will need to log when you take your meal break on your timecard for bookkeeping purposes. Rest breaks generally do not have to be logged, but you may have to attest you took them. Employers can be fined meal penalties if you do not take your meal break within the first 5 hours of the day or at all.
Exceptions to California Meal and Rest Break Rules
Exceptions do exist for those who belong to labor unions. Collective bargaining agreements typically trump any California regulations, meaning union members of certain industries operate under their own system of rules.
Industries whose union agreements override non-exempt meal and rest break rules include:
- Film & television
- Security officers
- Electric, gas, and other utilities
Is Your Boss Cheating You Out of Breaks? We Can Help.
If you believe you were misclassified as an exempt employee or your boss refuses to offer you the breaks you are entitled to, Attorney Marder is prepared to assist you. Our team at Polaris Law Group has more than 25 years of experience, and our employment lawyer is familiar with regulations surrounding breaks and employee classification. We may be able to help you recover monetary damages and make sure all of the employees in your workplace get the breaks they deserve under California law.
Schedule a free initial consultation to see if you have a case by calling (888) 796-4010 or contacting us online today!