4 Things Every Employer Should Know About California Break Laws

by Diana Lam, 4 minutes read
HOME blog 4 things every employer should know about california break laws

California wage and hour laws are quite strict and complex when compared to other states. In The Golden State, workers are entitled to many rights and protections. And if employers don’t comply, a lot is on the line including steep penalty fees, litigation costs and attorneys’ fees, and damage to your brand’s reputation. 

Employees can receive up to two hours of regular pay per day for missed meals or rest breaks. And recently, California’s highest court ruled extra pay for missed breaks is considered “wages” and must be reported on wage statements. And noncompliance can go beyond financial loss. 

Violating meal and rest break laws can also affect your brand reputation and disrupt your business. Your current and future hires want to know that they’re working for a company that practices legally and ethically. In addition, compliance violations can also cause irreparable distrust and turn customers away.

To prevent consequences, first, keep in mind that there are a lot of compliance rules across different categories in California. And there are updates from time to time that you need to keep up with. But, whether you're an employer or an employee, these are the four things you need to know about California break laws today. 

Breaks must be provided at specific times during the shift

California employers must permit most nonexempt employees to take a paid 10-minute rest break for every 4 hours of work, or a major fraction thereof. A rest break is not required if the employee works fewer than 3 ½ hours. The rest break must be provided in the middle of each 4-hour segment of work if possible.

On top of that, employers must permit nonexempt California employees to take an unpaid meal break of at least 30 minutes if they work for more than 5 hours on a shift. The meal break must be provided no later than the end of the fifth hour of work. 

A second unpaid meal break must be provided if the shift is longer than 10 hours and that meal break must be provided no later than the end of the tenth hour of work. Some employees may sign meal break waivers if their shift is six hours or less, but for the purposes of this article, we will assume that no meal break waiver has been signed.

Employees get missed break premium pay if they are not permitted to take a break

If non-exempt employees are not permitted to take their meal and/or rest breaks at the appropriate times, they can receive up to two hours of missed break premium pay for each day the breaks were not provided.

The amount of missed break premium pay is 1 hour at the employee’s “regular rate” of pay for each day a meal break is not provided, and 1 hour at the “regular rate” for each day a rest break is not provided. An employee cannot receive more than 2 hours of missed break premium pay per day.

Workers must be provided with multiple breaks if they work over five hours in a shift

If a nonexempt employee works a five-hour shift, they are entitled to two breaks: one rest break and one meal break. Longer shifts trigger even more breaks. The table below summarizes how many meal and rest breaks employers should provide depending on the length of the shift.

Length of Shift Number of Breaks
Less than 3.5 hours 0
3.5 to 5 hours 1 paid 10-minute rest break
More than 5, up to 6 hours 1 paid 10-minute rest break and 1 unpaid 30-minute meal break
More than 6, up to 10 hours 2 paid 10-minute rest breaks and 1 unpaid 30-minute meal break
More than 10, up to 14 hours 3 paid 10-minute rest breaks and 2 unpaid 30-minute meal breaks

Employees are responsible for taking their given breaks, and breaks can be waived in some cases

California employers have an obligation to “authorize and permit” nonexempt employees to take their required breaks. However, when it comes to actually taking the breaks, this responsibility is in the hands of the employee. 

What does it mean to “authorize and permit” employees to take their breaks? A good general rule of thumb is that meal, and rest breaks should be scheduled at the required times during the shift, and the employee should be relieved of all duties for the entire duration of the break. If the employee is required to remain on duty or is interrupted by work during the break, it will probably not qualify. 

Rest breaks and meal breaks are considered separate and should not be combined. For example, an employee cannot provide a 1-hour break as all their meal and rest breaks. 

In another example, on an 8-hour shift, the employer should provide a rest break at approximately the 2-hour mark, then a meal break at approximately the 4-5 hour mark, and finally a second rest break at approximately the 6-hour mark. Combining these into a single hour-long break at the end of the shift would not meet the legal requirements.

Certain employees can waive their meal breaks. But rest breaks cannot be waived. In order to qualify for a waiver, the employee’s shift must be longer than 5 hours but fewer than 6 hours. The waiver should be completely voluntary, in writing, and signed by the employer and the employee.

If an employee has signed a meal break waiver, they would not be eligible for missed meal break premium pay if they are not provided a meal break. However, the waivers may be revoked at any time. If an employee revokes their meal break waiver, the employer must permit a meal break. 

Remember that employees who work very long shifts (over 10 hours) must be provided two meal breaks. These employees may elect to waive their second meal break, but only when they don’t work more than 12 hours and only if they did not waive their first meal break.

How to make compliance less complex

Many times compliance requirements can be missed by overlooking details or simply forgetting to make the right updates. With so many types of labor laws to keep up with, it can be overwhelming to manage – especially without the right software to support you. 

Keep an eye out for system features that can make it simple to monitor overtime, premium pay requirements, and required meal and rest breaks. These can make it easier for your team to meet legal obligations without creating excess work. For example, they won’t have to triple-check items like pay calculations or rest break allocations. 

Investing in a California workforce management software can simplify compliance while ultimately protecting your brand reputation and potentially saving your business from regulator penalties or costly claim settlements. Need a hand with meal and rest break management? See how Deputy can help.