Meal and Rest Periods
California law requires that full-time workers receive an unpaid half-hour meal period and two ten minute rest breaks per day. If the worker does not receive such a period, then the worker must be paid for the time. As of October 1, 2000, California law also requires an additional hour of compensation for every day a worker is not afforded the required meal period and an additional hour of compensation for every day a worker is not afforded the required rest periods.
Specifically, the law requires: No employer shall employ any person for a work period of more than five (5) hours without a meal period of not less than 30 minutes, except that when a work period of not more than six (6) hours will complete the day’s work the meal period may be waived by mutual consent of the employer and the employee. Unless the employee is relieved of all duty during a 30 minute meal period, the meal period shall be considered an “on duty” meal period and counted as time worked. An “on duty” meal period shall be permitted only when the nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duty and when by written agreement between the parties an on-the-job paid meal period is agreed to. The written agreement shall state that the employee may, in writing, revoke the agreement at any time. California Code of Regulations, Title 8, Section 11040.
As you can see, the law is fairly protective of an employee’s right to take meal breaks and eliminates the illegal practices of having the employee “waive” the meal break or having the employee take the break at the beginning or end of the shift. The law provides the only circumstates where the meal period can be waived by the employee — when the total work day is only 6 hours, and subject to a written agreement where the job does not permit a meal break.
You should note that there are very few situations were the job does not actually permit a meal break. For instance, if you are a security guard at a remote location, it would not be realistic to stop guarding for 30 minutes while you take a break. In such as a case, if you had a written agreement, you could work through your meal period. On the other hand, if you work in a small store and are the only one watching the store, this would likely not qualify. The reason is that you could simply close the store and take your meal break. It should be noted that most jobs where you work with other people who can cover your shift for 30 minutes will never qualify for the “on duty” meal period.
Another common violation by employers is to have the employee take the break at the beginning or end of the shift. For instance, they have the employee just work 7 1/2 hours and then take their lunch break for 30 mins. Rather than return after the 30 mins, they just have the employee go home. This policy is clearly illegal because the law states that you can not work more than 5 hours without a meal break. Thus, if you work 7 1/2 hours without a break, it does not matter if you could take one before or after you clock out — it is still illegal. Only bona fide meal breaks that occur at least every 5 hours are allowed under the law.