California’s Meal and Rest Break Laws in 2021

Do you recall the last time your business updated its policies and procedures on meal and rest breaks? Have you been working off the same guidelines for years? If so, it’s possible you’re out of compliance with the California Labor Code. It’s important to also understand your current wage orders to ensure you are up to standard on your industry-specific workforce employment rules. Unfortunately, a seemingly simple error in compliance with labor regulations can lead to significant penalties or, in some cases, expensive lawsuits if an employee decides to take legal action. It is critical that your company follows all meal and rest break mandates, while simultaneously training supervisors and staff on compliance to ensure you don’t unintentionally violate the law. 

California Meal Breaks

The basic meal break rule is that a non-exempt employee, working a five-hour shift, must be given a 30-minute, uninterrupted and unmonitored meal break. If an employee works a ten-hour shift, they must be allowed a second 30-minute break, beginning before the last hour of work. An individual working no more than six hours has the ability to waive their meal break, just as an employee working ten hours can waive their second meal break, as long as they don’t work longer than 12 hours. An employee may not, however, work through their meal break to leave work 30 minutes early. 

 

On-Duty Meal Breaks

There are specific situations in which an employee is allowed a paid, “on duty” meal break. This is uncommon, but is given when, due to the nature of the job, an employee is unable to be completely relieved of all their duties for a break (i.e., security guard stations, single employee coffee kiosks, or 24-hour convenience stores). On duty meal breaks require a written agreement between the employee and employer. Recently, a California appeals court ruled that the written agreement must include language stating the employee has the ability to revoke the agreement in writing at any time. 

If your company authorizes on duty meal breaks, it is important to consult with your legal counsel to make sure you meet all the criteria required by law. 

 

Rest Breaks

Employers must provide a 10-minute rest break in the middle of each four-hour work period, or “major fraction thereof.” Rest breaks are paid breaks in which the employee is relieved of all work-related duties. However, an employer is not required to supervise the break to ensure no work is being done. If an employee works less than 3.5 hours, they are not obligated a rest break. 

 

Employer Penalties 

If an employer fails to comply with meal or rest break laws, they must pay their employee an additional hour of wages for each day a meal and/or rest break was not provided. An employee can also file a wage claim with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement or file a lawsuit against their employer. 

Laws are constantly evolving, making managing labor compliance more complicated and confusing than ever before. In addition, the court’s way of interpreting the law is always developing and changing. In recent years, decisions made by the court have made clear the increased potential for fines and penalties for violating labor law. It is critical that your organization conducts a periodic audit of meal break and rest break compliance to not only avoid costly penalties, but to also show your employees that you respect and value their time and effort in the workplace.

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