California meal and rest break laws are much more accommodating to workers compared to federal regulations. For instance, most workers are permitted to have unpaid meal breaks as well as paid rest periods throughout a workday. However, there are several deviations when it comes to these laws, especially for exempt employees. Generally, exempt workers are entitled to unpaid meal breaks, but not all of them are entitled to rest periods. If you are not sure of where you fall, talk to attorneys at Orange County Workers Compensation Attorney to find out whether you are entitled to these breaks.
Also, if your employer has denied you these breaks, our attorneys will help you get compensation for that. Even though the law does not require that your employer pays for meal breaks, you may be entitled to extra pay. This is in case you are not permitted to have these breaks. This article focuses on what the law says on exempt worker’s entitlement to meal and rest breaks. We also discuss the steps the employee can take if they have a dispute with their employer.
Meal Break Requirements as Per the Labor Laws
A meal break as per California meal break law refers to an uninterrupted and unpaid period of thirty minutes that workers get to spend on their business. Personal business, in this case, includes meals, errands, or anything a worker would choose to do with their time.
The California labor laws dictate the following for meal breaks for workers:
Workers who work over five hours in one day are eligible for a meal break of thirty (30) minutes. However, a worker can waive the meal break in case they won’t work over six hours on that day. Additionally, employees who work beyond ten hours in one day should also be allowed a second meal break for thirty minutes. The worker can waive the second break if:
- They did not waive their first break
- Their workday will not be longer than 12 hours
For a meal break to be legal, an employer has to:
- Relinquish control over the worker’s activities
- Allow a reasonable chance for the worker to have an interrupted meal break of thirty minutes
- Relieve the worker of all their duties
According to meal break laws, an employer cannot:
- Impede or discourage workers from taking their meal breaks
- Come up with incentives to omit meal breaks
- Create or encourage a culture which entails skipping meals
As we shall expound, later on, the law requires that an employer provides his or her workers with meal breaks. However, it is not the employer’s duty to make sure that the workers make use of those breaks.
Rest Breaks Requirements
Rest breaks, also known as rest periods, are also a requirement under labor regulations. A rest period should not be less than ten minutes every four hours. Workers that work more than six hours a day are eligible for a second rest period. In case you work more than ten hours a day, you qualify for a third rest period, each worth ten minutes.
These rest periods have to be included in the time worked. Therefore, employers have to pay for them. Also, they must be fixed in the middle of a worker’s work period in a practicable manner. For instance, if you work eight hours or more, you must have separate rest breaks before and after you have your meal period. However, in case there are practical issues that make this impractical, your employer can schedule the rest breaks at other times within the shift. Also, rest breaks are not necessary for workers who work not more than three and a half hours a day.
Note that meal breaks and rest breaks are not supposed to be combined; they should be separate. Your employer cannot allow for a one-hour break and assume that the break counts as your rest breaks and meal breaks.
California Employees Eligible for Meal and Rest Periods
Like overtime laws, meal and rest breaks requirements in California apply majorly to non-exempt workers. Exempt employees may be entitled to unpaid meal breaks, but most of them are not eligible for rest breaks. The most significant category of California exempt workers is white-collar exempt workers. They include executive, administrative, and professional employees.
For an employee to be classified under the above categories of employees, they have to meet all the requirements as mentioned below:
- Spend over 50% or more of their working time performing creative, managerial, or intellectual work
- Receive a monthly salary, which is equivalent to not less than two times the minimum wage for full-time employment.
- Regularly exercise independent judgment and discretion in the performance of those duties
As we mentioned before, not all exempt workers are entitled to meal and rest breaks. For instance, a supervisor who falls under the executive exemption is not protected by meal and rest break laws. However, other exempt workers are still eligible for meal and rest breaks. For example, often, truck drivers are considered as exempt workers. But under the labor laws of California, they have to receive their meal and rest breaks. Also, as much as inside salespersons are considered exempt workers, they still are entitled to meal and rest breaks. An inside salesperson is a person who sells products or services while physically stationed at their workplaces. If you are an exempt employee, you should consult an attorney to find out if your job qualifies you for meal and rest breaks.
Additionally, regulations on meal and rest breaks do not touch employees that are considered independent contractors. Several factors determine whether an employee is an independent contractor or worker. However, employees hired as independent contractors may be in an employment relationship with their employers. This may make them protected by wage and hour, labor laws, and rest and meal break rules.
The meal break requirements do not also affect the unionized workers, in particular, industries whose collective bargaining agreements provide for meal periods on a distinct schedule. For instance, provisions of collective bargaining agreement provisions on meal periods override the regulations for any unionized worker who works:
- In a construction occupation
- For public utility, gas, or electrical companies
- As a security officer
- As a commercial driver
- In the motion picture sector
- In the broadcasting industry
- In the wholesale banking sector
- In the health care sector
If your job falls under any of these categories, it is best to consult with an experienced employment lawyer concerning your situation. Being unfairly exempted from these breaks is also another issue that you would need to bring to your attorney’s attention.
Being on Call or Working During Meal & Rest Breaks
Generally, your employer may not need you to continue doing your duties or be on call while taking your rest or meal break. He or she is also not supposed to cancel your breaks. Therefore, it is illegal for your employer to demand that you continue working while eating at the time of your meal break or be on call on your rest breaks. Similarly, an employer will be violating labor laws if they cancel a rest or meal break and order you back to work. Legally this is equal to denying you your right to a rest or meal break.
However, your employer is not under the obligation to make sure that you do not work while taking your rest or meal break. Thus, in case you choose to voluntarily work while on your break, the employer will not be liable for that.
For instance, Maryanne works as an inside salesperson at a boutique. She goes on her meal break, and after a few minutes later, several shoppers arrive at the boutique waiting to buy clothes. Maryanne’s boss tells her that she has to go back quickly to attend to the customers and have her meal later on.
Maryanne’s boss has practically denied Maryanne her meal break in violation of labor laws. Although if Maryanne decides that she will skip her meal break time because she needs to make a commission, her employer is not liable. This is because she chose to continue with her duties voluntarily.
The decision on whether an employer has to ensure a worker takes their break or that they need to provide the break was made in 2012 in the Supreme Court. The case was between Brinker Restaurant Corp. V. Superior Court. For many years, this had been a ground for significant lawsuits in both state and federal courts.
The Supreme Court of California finally ruled in favor of Brinker Restaurant Corp. It maintained that an employer does not need to make sure workers make use of their meal periods. The court held that after a meal break is scheduled, the employer has no responsibility to police the breaks and to make sure a worker does not do any work.
The unanimous verdict was a significant win for employers, but it comes with potential pitfalls. An employer with unclear policies might expose themselves to increased responsibility. Additionally, the decision still makes it clear that rest and meal break disputes are still open to class action suits.
But there is an exception to this rule. We have certain workers who must have on-duty meal breaks. On-duty meal breaks are situations where workers have to work during their meal periods. These are only permitted if:
- The worker makes a written agreement to remain on duty through meal breaks. The worker is permitted to cancel this agreement at any time. The cancellation also has to be in writing.
- The type of job the worker does prevents them from leaving their duties. For instance, if the worker is a security officer and he/she is the only one on duty.
In case a meal break occurs in a shift starting or ending between or at 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., an employer should make available facilities. These include equipment for keeping hot drinks and food or machines for heating foods and drinks. They also have to provide a sheltered location to consume drinks or meals.
Lactation Breaks for New Mothers
Employers are required by law to provide rest breaks to accommodate female workers who need to give breast milk to their infants. If possible, lactation break periods should overlap with the worker’s other rest periods.
In case the lactation break does not combine with the other rest breaks, provided to lactating mothers, an employer is not under any obligation to pay the worker during that break.
Employers should try and provide lactating workers with private rooms or locations for the workers to breastfeed their infants privately. The area provided has to be near the worker’s working space, but it cannot be a toilet stall.
An employer is not mandated to provide lactation time if, by doing that would seriously interfere with their business operations. However, this is usually a high burden for any employer to bear, and eventually, lactation breaks will be a necessity.
The consequences of an employer failing to schedule lactation breaks may be severe. If found guilty, the employer has to pay a civil fine of $100.00 for every violation.
Federal Law on Meal and Rest Breaks
Federal regulations require that employers compensate for worked hours, including the time that the employer may set aside as breaks. For instance, if you must work during a meal break, the time has to be compensated. Receptionists who must answer phone calls or wait until deliveries are made during a meal break has to be compensated for the time. Similarly, a paralegal who has their lunch at their desk during a meal break must be paid for that time. Even if the employer assumes that this time is a meal break, you are still performing your duties and therefore are eligible for the payment.
Also, federal laws require that employers pay for any short break you are allowed to have during your working day. Breaks that last between five to twenty minutes are counted as part of your workday. Thus, you must also be paid for this time.
Employers do not have to compensate for valid meal periods during which you are relieved of your duties so that you can eat your meal. You do not need to be permitted to leave your workplace during your meal break for it to be counted as a valid meal break. What matters is that you will not be working during this period. Generally, meal breaks are authentic if they last at least thirty minutes. However, shorter breaks can qualify as well based on circumstances.
These regulations only apply if your employer permits breaks. Federal laws require that your employer pays for a particular time, even if it is designated as a break. It does not dictate that employers offer break periods, to begin with.
What to Do if You Are Denied a Rest or Meal Break
While certain employers will fail to schedule meal and rest breaks for their employees due to ignorance, others may do that as a calculated move to save money. Employers who do not permit their workers to have their rest or meal breaks will have an obligation to pay their workers. The payment should be an hour’s wage for every denied break. This extra pay is known as premium pay.
So, let’s say your employer did not permit you to have entitled meal breaks for a year. This is equal to about 250 days of work. The employer would owe you compensation that equals 250 hours’ worth of wages at your standard rate.
Missed Rest and Meal Breaks
There have been discussions about the wages an employer would owe a worker who misses a rest and meal break in a single day. The question has always been; would the worker be entitled to an hour of compensation, or would they be two hours because it is two distinct violations?
In the case of United Parcel v. Superior Court, the California Court of Appeal’s ruling on this matter clarified that a worker would be entitled to two hours of pay. On this particular issue, we have two distinct remedies since the requirement on premium wage is stipulated in two separate sections of the wage order.
The problem gets complicated where a worker is wrongly classified as a salaried exempt worker even though they do not meet the legal requirements. In a case like this one, the worker would have to be compensated a rest and meal period premium for every single day they worked in that position. The compensation dates back to up to three to four years.
If you are a California worker, you can take action against your employer for denying you your entitled rest or meal breaks as required by the labor laws. Among the steps that you can take include:
- Handling the dispute by yourself directly and informally with your employer
- Filing a lawsuit against your employer
- Filing a wage claim with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement
You can join a class-action lawsuit and fight for compensation with other affected employees instead of filing a lawsuit alone. Often, successful wage and hour lawsuits are class-action suits that have to do with employers failing to provide rest periods or meal breaks.
You have up to three years to file a lawsuit or a wage claim. This period is counted from the date the violation of your meal and rest breaks rights takes place. It is against the law for employers to discriminate or retaliate against workers for:
- Inquiring about a rest and meal break they missed
- Protesting against an unlawful practice
- Filing a wage claim with the Labor Commission
Each case is distinctive, and not every employer will be willing to settle the case informally. Lawsuits may be expensive and time-consuming. On the other hand, wage claims are meant to lower a worker’s costs and risks. The Division of Labor Standards Enforcement can give citations to an employer and require them to pay fines to the employee. The best manner in which you will resolve a rest period or meal break dispute depends on your specific situation. Thus, it is essential to consult your employment lawyer to know what option best suits your situation.
You May Have a Case
Since now you understand rest breaks and meal breaks laws, you could be wondering whether or not you have a valid dispute against your employer. It is essential to ask yourself this because if you have a compelling case, you have a right to additional compensation from your employer.
We have many factors that attorneys consider to determine whether or not you have a solid case. You may have a solid case if one or more of these factors, among other facts, are true:
- You do not get one unpaid meal period of thirty minutes for your shift of eight hours
- You do not get two paid rest periods of ten minutes each for your shift of eight hours
- You are usually on standby or on-call during your meal or rest breaks
- Your meal or rest period is interrupted frequently
- You are not permitted to stop working during your thirty-minute meal period
- Your supervisor prevents you from having a lawfully-required meal or rest break
- You work over ten hours a day but do not get two meal breaks of thirty minutes each
- You eat and work simultaneously for your meal break or rest period
If one or more of these happen to you, reach out to an attorney immediately to determine whether you are eligible for back pay for missed rest and meal breaks.
Find a Meal and Rest Breaks Attorney Near Me
Laws on meal breaks and rest breaks can be complicated. Thus, workers have to take steps to make sure they understand their rights. As we have seen, the majority of exempt employees are not entitled to rest and meal break privileges like non-exempt employees. Therefore, your employer can misclassify you as exempt to deliberately deny you these breaks. If you believe your employer has illegally denied you a break, you may be eligible for compensation. Contact the Orange County Workers Compensation Attorney at 949-423-3212. We will help you review your status of employment status and if you have a potential rest or break dispute.
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