10 meal and rest break facts every California employer should know

Meal breaks are different from rest breaks, and you need to know the laws concerning both

10 meal and rest break facts every California employer should know

Breaks are an essential part of any employment – no matter the ranking and type of job it is. Across the United States, companies offer both rest and meal breaks to help employees with their work and responsibilities throughout their work shifts.

Amid all the employment and company policies hiring managers need to keep tabs on, the basic facts and information on meal and rest breaks mustn't be lost on HR managers. Listed below are the 10 essential facts every Californian HR leader should know. But first:

Register: Employment Law Masterclass California

Meal and rest breaks – the difference

A meal break is different from rest breaks and should not be interchanged with each other. Like the term itself, a meal break is a period in an employee’s shift where they get uninterrupted time off to spend on personal matters such as errands, meals, rest, or anything else they wish to do. 

Meanwhile, a rest break is a quick break that allows employees to rest and step back from their work throughout their daily shift. It is usually offered to employees every four hours they have worked a shift. The main difference between the rest and meal breaks is the length of the break. The rest break is shorter compared to meal breaks.

According to the US Department of Labor, lunch and coffee breaks are not mandatory under federal laws called the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). However, if employers offer a rest break, the company is expected to compensate for the break.

State laws, however, may require different conditions and policies for companies. Employers should be responsible and regularly stay updated with both federal and state laws on breaks to ensure company policies are up-to-date and valid.

Read more: Five California HR law changes to know in 2022

10 facts on meal and rest breaks in California

In California, there are specific break laws in place that employers are required to follow. These laws are enforced and monitored on all the state’s companies and organizations by the California Labor Commissioner’s Office.

Listed below are 10 basic facts about meal and rest breaks Californian HR leaders should know:

  1. Employees are free to skip rest breaks

Under Californian law, employees are free to skip their rest breaks if they wish to do so. This means employers may not encourage employees to take their rest breaks and cannot force them to take breaks.

Despite this, Californian employers are required to provide rest breaks no matter if the employee uses them or not.

  1. Rest breaks are at least 10 consecutive, uninterrupted minutes

A typical rest break in California should be at least 10 minutes. These rest periods should also be uninterrupted and not broken into more minor pauses by the employer. The amount of rest breaks an employee receives will depend on how many hours they have worked. For practicality, it is best to offer the rest breaks in the middle of the employee’s work period.

  1. Rest breaks must be paid

According to Californian rest break laws, the quick breaks should be paid for by the company. However, this does not mean that an employer can interrupt an employee’s rest period solely for the reason that they are being paid during that time.

  1. Meal breaks are unpaid

While rest breaks are required by state law to be paid, a meal break – which is typically a 30-minute break from work to eat, rest, and attend to other personal matters – remains unpaid. A meal break is provided once the employee has worked for at least five hours. If an employee worked for six hours or less, an employee might agree to give up meal breaks if they wish to do so.

  1. Rest breaks’ duration varies according to the number of work hours

As mentioned earlier, Californian employers are required to provide rest breaks that are at least 10 consecutive minutes. The amount of rest breaks an employee may receive will depend on their work period length.

Under California law, a minimum 10-minute rest break is offered to an employee after 3.5 hours of work, a second rest break is offered after six hours of work, and another rest break if they worked for at least 10 hours. After 10 hours of work, the employee will continue to receive a rest break after every four more hours of work.

Register: Employment Law Masterclass California

The frequency of meal breaks offered by Californian companies also depends on the work period of an employee. A minimum 30-minute meal break is provided once an employee has worked for five hours, and another meal break after every five hours. Once an employee is off on their rest or meal break, they are relieved from their duties and are not required to answer any requests from work.

  1. Rest breaks and meal breaks are separate and should not be combined

It is against the law for companies to offer rest and meal breaks as one combined work break. For example, providing an employee an hour-long break instead of two rest breaks and one meal break to be distributed throughout their shift is unfair and not allowed. Rest and meal breaks are separated to ensure employees are receiving enough rest throughout their work shift to prevent burnout and fatigue.

  1. Taking meal breaks is the employee’s responsibility

As of 2012, California law ensures employers provide adequate meal breaks to employees, but the taking of the meal break is up to the employee. It means that the employee may or may not take the meal break for that day. It is also up to the employee to decide when it is time for them to take their break so long as they do not combine the rest and meal break together.

  1. The employee can sue if the employer violates California break laws

An employee has every right to sue the employer should they violate the state law on rest and meal breaks. The terms and conditions on breaks are included in the employment agreement, and any breach of those conditions allows the employee to file a complaint against the company. For example, if the employer refuses to provide adequate breaks, the employee can sue and be entitled to receive a payment worth one-hour wages per day the employee was denied any breaks.

  1. Employers may provide an on-duty meal break, depending on the nature of the work

Employees can request an on-duty meal period from their employer, who sees it as paid time. An on-duty meal period is reasonable to provide if the nature of the employee’s work prevents them from taking a break from their duties. It is vital for both the employee and employer to agree to an on-duty meal break in writing to avoid any legal issues in the future.

Read more: Give me a break! Why you need a mental health day

  1. Employers are required to offer salaried employees the opportunity to take a 30-minute unpaid meal break

A salaried employee – those who are paid a fixed monthly salary despite the number of hours they work – is entitled to a 30-minute unpaid meal break just like any other regular employee. However, these salaried employees are not required to take the unpaid meal break.

Although it may seem insignificant compared to other employment terms, it is important for every Californian HR leader to understand the basics of the federal and state laws on rest and meal breaks. Understanding how to properly apply the break policies and staying updated on law changes and amendments lessens the risk of a lawsuit against the company and maintains the satisfaction of employees.

Recent articles & video

Four ways to improve recruiting and retention

Department of Labor releases final rule on 401(k) plan investments

How to Create a Phenomenal Employee Experience & Future Proof Your HR Strategy in 2023

Can an employer stop medical treatment authorized for a worker's injury?

Most Read Articles

Does your benefits package include an employee discounts program?

Furniture company fires 2,700 workers just before Thanksgiving

32% of Americans admit to lying on their resume