California Worker Meal Break Rights

Time for a Break

This is the first post in my “Understanding California Meal Breaks” series. In this series, I will explain California workers’ meal breaks rights, the circumstances under which an employee may waive a meal break or agree to an on-duty meal break, and the process for filing an administrative or civil complaint against your employer for missed, untimely, or interrupted meal breaks.

To begin, I will address the mystery surrounding the requirements of a proper meal break. Contrary to popular belief of meal break rights, not getting a meal break is not enough to show that an employer has broken the law or that the worker is entitled to compensation; there are still critical questions that need to be answered, like whether the worker is even entitled to a meal break and whether the employer provided a meal break.

California State Law Puts Certain Requirements in Place Regarding Employee Meal Breaks

In California, an employer’s duty regarding meal breaks seems quite clear: it must provide meal breaks. But, until recently, what was not so clear was the meaning ofprovide. In April 2012, the California Supreme Court finally clarified what it means for an employee to be provided a lawful meal break: (1) the employee must be relieved of all duty during the break, (2) the employer must relinquish control over the employee’s activities for the entire break, (3) the employee’s meal break must last for 30 consecutive minutes, without interruption, and (4) the employee cannot be discouraged or obstructed from taking the meal break. Although not specifically mentioned as a factor, an employee should also feel free to leave the premises during the break. An employer must meet all of these requirements to fulfill its meal break duty.

A common problem that non-exempt employees in California share with me is that their meal breaks are interrupted by phone calls from other employees who need coverage or are interrupted by managers or supervisors requiring them to help customers. This violates California law. In fact, if an employee’s meal break is interrupted for even one minute, and the employee does not receive 30 consecutive duty-free minutes for a meal break, the employer must pay the employee an additional hour of pay for that day, known as “premium pay.”

Timing Plays a Factor in Determining Whether the Meal Break Rights of California Workers are Being Violated

Many employees (and employers) don’t know this, but timing – when it comes to meal breaks – is everything. For a typical eight-hour shift, an employee must get a meal break by the start of the employee’s sixth hour of work. So, if Joe Employee starts his shift at 8:00 a.m., he must get his meal break by 1:00 p.m. A meal break any later than that entitles Mr. Employee to premium pay.

Understanding meal break rights is important for every business, because even well-established businesses can get into trouble. The city of Los Angeles is in a legal situation concerning trash truck driver’s meal breaks.

If you feel your employer has not provided you meal breaks, or if you want to discuss other issues relating to workers’ rights to meal and rest breaks, please contact me today to schedule a free initial consultation.

Read the next article in my “Understanding California Meal Breaks” series.

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