CA Meal Break Law Explained by an Employment Lawyer
October 8, 2019
California’s meal and lunch break law is complicated. This video will make it simple. Stick around because I’m going to explain everything that California employees need to know about meal breaks. We’re first going to review California’s basic law regarding meal breaks at the workplace. Secondly, we’ll review the common violations that employment lawyers like me see day in and day out. Finally, we’re going to review the monetary penalties that employees are owed if their employer forces them to miss their lunch breaks. The basic tenets of California meal break law are here. Basically, if you have a shift that’s longer than five hours you’re entitled to one meal break. If you have a shift thats longer than ten hours you’re entitled to two meal breaks during that workday. And that meal break must be at least thirty minutes long. Some employers schedule longer meal breaks – some employees can have the ability to choose to take along a meal break. But at a minimum that lunch break must be thirty minutes long. And it must be, as lawyers like to say, uninterrupted; meaning you’re not doing any job duties at any point in time in that lunch break. So it must be uninterrupted. Now this meal break must be unpaid; meaning you are off the clock. You clock out. You’re gone for thirty minutes, you’re doing whatever you want for thirty minutes. So, you’re not getting paid for. As should be obvious, if you’re clocking out, this law only applies to non-exempt hourly employees. If you’re a salaried employee this law doesn’t apply to you – generally because you get to schedule your own lunch breaks. But okay, what about a situation where you barely working over five hours? Well, California law says if you have a shift that’s somewhere between five to six hours the employer can ask you to waive that lunch break in writing. Now, you have to sign off in writing otherwise a violation occurs. Where is all this meal break law found? Primarily, it’s found in the California wage orders which are published on the Department of Industrial Relations website. You can just do a quick google search, and you’ll find it no problem. And you can find the wage order (there’s like twenty something) that applies to your industry. You can also find it in the California Labor Code – specifically, Section 226.7. 226.7 outlines what employees care most about – the monetary penalties that are incurred when an employer violates this law. But we’re going to look at that in just a minute. My office has received hundreds of phone calls from employees complaining about being denied their meal breaks. Really common violations are right here. First and foremost, especially among less sophisticated and smaller employers, is where they literally have a policy that says you’re not allowed to take a lunch break. Well, that’s in direct contravention of California employment law. We do see it quite often. More often, however, we see something like this – where the employer asks the employee, “Hey you can take your lunch, but please work through it.” Or, “Yeah, clock out, but please continue working.” Thats a very common violation and we get a lot of phone calls about that. We also get a lot of phone calls where the employer or manager says “Yeah, take your lunch break, but can you stay on the premises?” Or “Can you stay and eat your lunch at your desk?” Or, if you’re a receptionist – “Can you please stay at the front desk and just eat your lunch there?” Well that is a violation of law as well because that’s an interrupted lunch break. That’s where somebody’s still doing job duties, but they’re off the clock. That the violation and the penalty occurs. We also see quite often, especially in the foodservice industry where people are scheduled for shifts between five to six hours, that the employer asked them to waive their lunch break, which again is legal, but it has to be done in writing. We see it quite often where the employer doesn’t get that waiver in writing. We also see what we call paper policies now. This is where the employee handbook and other written policies and procedures say “Everybody’s allowed to take a meal break.” Or “You have to take a 30-minute uninterrupted lunch break.” But there’s actually an unwritten rule at that company that nobody’s allowed to take a lunch break. Or there’s a department where nobody’s allowed to take lunch break. Or just a particular manager enforces an unwritten rule that nobody’s allowed to take a lunch break. That’s very common. We also see a clock-out scenario where the employer or a manager says, “Hey, yeah, go take your lunch break, but can you run an errand for me?” Or “Hey, can you first answer that email?” Or, “Yes, clock out, but then make sure you call this guy back.” Again, that’s asking an employee to work while they’re off the clock and is a violation of California’s meal break law. If your boss or company has forced you to skip your meal breaks – what should you do? California Labor Code Section 226.7 outlines the monetary penalties that employers must pay employees when they force them to skip their meal breaks. Specifically, it says, if you’re an hourly employee, and you’re forced to skip your break, that employer is supposed to pay you one hour of pay at your regular rate of pay as a penalty. So, let’s play out a hypothetical. Let’s say you’re making $30 an hour, and you’re a full-time employee – meaning you’re working 8 hours a day. You’ve worked at this company for 3 years and every single day your employer forces you to skip your meal break. This happens all the time! Not only that, but you’re asked to work through your 30-minute lunch break. So you’re not just working 8 hours a day, you’re working 8 and a half hours a day. What kind of monetary penalties are you owed? You’re owed $30 a day as a penalty, and you’re owed a half an hour of unpaid overtime violations a day because the additional 30 minutes. So let’s do the basic math! $30 a day x 5 days a week x 52 weeks a year x 3 years. That adds up to $23,400. OK, let’s do the math on the unpaid overtime. A half-an-hour at an overtime rate of $45 an hour that’s $22 and a half bucks. Multiply that by 5 days a week by 52 weeks a year, by 3 years. You’ve got $17,550 in unpaid overtime violations. All told, just under $41,000. That amount of money will get anybody’s attention. Okay, so if you’re owed that – how do you go about getting it? Well, there’s two main ways. Number one, you can contact the Labor Board, which we recommend that you do if you’ve only missed a couple meal breaks or dozen meal breaks; where your situation is relatively simple. However, if you’re owed a sizable amount of money in a scenario like this, or you’ve missed a lot of meal breaks over the course of a year or two, and/or you’ve also got rest break violations, unpaid overtime violations, possibly a wrongful termination, or harassment, or discrimination claim, we highly recommend that you contact a private employment lawyer. Generally, to have a consultation with the private employment lawyer like myself the consultation is free and Generally, when you hire an employment, lawyer, they’re working on a contingency fee (which means you’re not paying them upfront), they’re getting paid out of the settlement at the end of the day. I hope you found this video helpful, take care.