Can I Work Without Taking a Lunch Break in California?

Yes, employees in California can officially waive their lunch breaks, but only if they work for less than six hours. Employees who choose to work through their lunch do so somewhat more unofficially.

A recent California court decision changed the duty of employers to provide lunch breaks for a full day’s work. Previously, employers had a duty to ensure employees complied with their break schedules. Now, employers simply provide the opportunity for employees to take the breaks. It becomes the responsibility of the employees to stop working for their own break times.

The law has not changed. To officially waive a lunch break, both the employer and employee must agree, ideally, in writing. Once an employee works for five hours or more, they take a 30-minute unpaid meal break. The official waiver only applies if the employee’s work day is six hours or less.

California Lunch and Rest Break Requirements

• Employers pay for rest breaks at the employees’ regular hourly rate.
• After three and a half hours in the day, the employee gets one 10-minute rest break.
• Beyond six hours, the employee gets a second 10-minute rest break.
• Once the employee works ten hours, followed by a third 10-minute rest break.
• Rest breaks belong in the middle of the work periods, not bunched together or added to meal breaks.
• Employees need not remain on the work premises during rest breaks.
• Rest breaks are at least 10 consecutive, uninterrupted minutes.
• California employees are free to skip rest breaks, if they want. Employers may not encourage or force employees to do so.
• Taking meal breaks is the employee’s responsibility. Employers only hold the responsibility to provide the opportunity for their employees.

California Meal Break Times for Longer Work Days

With less than five hours on the clock, employees in California do not get a meal break. Between five and ten hours, they break for 30 uninterrupted minutes as a meal break. With more than ten hours, up to fifteen hours, employees break twice for 30 minutes each time. From 15 to 20 hours employees break three times, and beyond 20 hours California law requires four 30-minute meal breaks.

The employee can waive the second meal break the during longer work days. The total work for the day must be no more than 12 hours and the employee cannot waive the first meal break.

Meal breaks and rest breaks are separate, never combined with each other. A one-hour break, instead of a thirty-minute meal break and three ten-minute rest breaks, does not count.

Exceptions do exist in certain industries, such as in construction, in group homes, health care, motion pictures, baking, and the manufacturing industry.

Salaried Workers and Their Lunch Breaks

The executive exemption covers most salaried supervisors and managers, but employers must follow strict additional requirements none-the-less. Also, truck drivers, often receive exemptions, but they still must receive adequate meal and rest breaks. Inside salespeople are another example. They sell while physically in the employer’s location, and receive the typical mandated meal breaks. How an employee receives their compensation does not always impact mandatory breaks.

Typical Compensation for Violations to California Lunch Break Law

Although employees can choose to work through their lunch break, employers cannot deny the opportunity for these breaks. If employers deny meal or rest breaks the employee could receive up to two hours of their regular wage for every day of breaks in compensation.

Many misconceptions exist about employer’s obligations toward meal and rest breaks. The critical element is that, by law, employees receive mandatory break opportunities. Employees can then choose how to spend their lunch times.