California employees are generally entitled to one “off-duty” meal period (lunch break), consisting of 30 minutes, for each five hours worked. An employee working more than 10 hours in a day should receive a second meal period. During this period, the employee must be relieved of all work, but the employer need not pay for this work-free meal period.
In Brinker v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court clarified the employer’s obligations regarding meal breaks. (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1004. To start, employees must be relieved of all duties during meal periods. They must not be “on-call,” and they must be allowed to leave premises of their work.
Employers must notify their employees of these rights, and may not pressure employees to work during meal periods, reward employees for giving up meal periods, or otherwise discourage them. Finally, adopting a written policy that “allows” meal periods is not enough, for example, if no one is available to relieve employees of work to take meal periods.
On the other hand, Brinker clarified that employers must not “police” employees. Employers, therefore, are not required to force employees to take their breaks, so long as the employee has a true opportunity to take them. Still, an employer may be faulted for their silent acquiescence – that is, the employer cannot be willfully blind to the fact that employees are doing work for the employer’s benefit rather than taking meal periods.
Exceptions exist for the meal period requirement. For example, healthcare employees may be required to stay on premises for meal periods, so long as the employer has suitable facilities for eating. Broadcasting and motion picture employees, construction workers, commercial drivers, and security guards are exempt from the statutory meal period requirement if they are covered by a union contract that properly provides for meal periods. similarly may not be entitled for meal periods so long as they are covered by a union contract that properly provides for them.
Most employees in California are also entitled to a ten-minute, duty free rest period for each four hours of work, or even major fractions of a four-hour shift. The Brinker requirements for meal periods apply to rest breaks, as well: meaning, among other things, they must be provided, but need not be “policed,” and they must be “work free.” Rest breaks, unlike meal periods, must be paid at the employee’s regular rate of pay, and most employers are required to provide a break room.
The Law Offices of Kyle Todd is proud of its work to enforce California’s laws providing for meal periods and rest breaks.