California Law on Wages: Meal Breaks Explained

Under California Labor Code and a number of orders of the Industrial Welfare Commission, almost all employees (with few exceptions), who work for over 5 hours are entitled to a meal break of at least 30 minutes. The only way the employer may be relieved from this obligation is that if (1) the employee’s workday is no longer than 6 hours; and (2) the employee expressly consented to waive the right to a meal break.

An employer has to provide the employee with a second 30-minute meal break, if the same employee works for over 10 hours. This second meal break period can be waived by mutual consent, but only if the employee took advantage of the first meal break. In other words, the employee cannot waive both breaks if he/she works for over 10 hours.

Some positions make it impossible or impracticable for an employee to leave the work site in order to have a meal break (night employees at gas stations who work alone, security guards at different sites, etc…) In such cases, the employee is considered as having “on-duty” meal break because he is not relieved of all duties (being forced to stay at workplace during his lunch break), and he must be compensated for that time at a regular rate of pay.

An employer who fails to make meal breaks available to its employees will have to pay the amount of one hour of regular rate of pay of that employee for each meal break not provided, in addition to any other potential damages, and penalties. This means, that the employer will have to pay at least one hour of the employee’s work time for each 30 minutes of meal break time that the same employer fails to provide.