Welcome back to our 101 series! Previous editions have focused on overtime laws and wrongful termination, so hit the links if you'd like to catch up. Today we're talking about employee entitlements in the state of California, like meal breaks and rest periods.
Since the laws differ from state to state most employees, and a good chunk of employers as well, are unaware of the breaks to which employees are entitled. So let's dive right in: how many breaks you get and how long they are depends largely on the length of the workday.
—Employees are entitled to one 10-minute paid rest for every 4 hours that they work.
—Any employee working 5 hrs. per day or more is entitled to one unpaid meal break of no less than 30 mins.
—If, however, the workday is no longer than 6 hours, then the meal break can be waived by mutual consent of the employer and employee.
—When a shift reaches ten hours or more, employees are entitled to an additional unpaid meal period of no less than 30 mins.
California law stipulates not just the duration and frequency of rest periods, but also takes step to ensure that rest periods are a genuine break from work. An important fact to remember is that meal breaks are a minimum of 30 mins. uninterrupted rest. If employees aren't totally relieved of their duties during a meal break then it is considered an "on-duty" meal period that counts toward weekly hours worked.
Employers have the responsibility to ensure that their employees are relieved of their work duties before the meal period begins and that the meal period remains uninterrupted. In most cases, employees must also be able to come an go as they please during their break.
The law does accommodate, though, professions and situations that require an employee to work through meal breaks, like a security guard working alone or healthcare employees who may be called on in emergencies. These "on duty" meal breaks must be paid and are counted towards hours worked. Furthermore, if an employer requires employees to remain onsite during meals, then they must be paid even if employees are fully relieved of duties.
In all workplaces where employees are required to take meal breaks on premises, the employer is responsible for designating an appropriate place to prepare and take meals. A notable exception to this rule is IWC order 16-2001 which concerns outdoor occupations like construction, logging, and drilling, but the order still stipulates that potable water, soap, and paper towels be provided for employees.
Fun fact: you are required to take your meal break. "Working through lunch," does not, despite popular belief, entitle one to leave work any earlier. Unless specifically mentioned in an applicable wage order, employees must take their meal breaks according to the time schedule outlined at the top of this page. The only way that employees are allowed to work through lunch is if the nature of the work prevents them from taking an uninterrupted break.