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September 26, 2022 | CaliforniaEmploymentFrom the blog

Do Employees Have a Right to a Lunch Break in California?

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Carlianna Dengel

Associate Attorney

Most employees expect to get a meal break, but employers may not necessarily be required to give one. It is important to understand the rules, as federal and California laws vary on whether an employee has a right to a lunch break, and if so, when and how they must be provided.

Does California Require Employers to Provide a Meal Break?

California law states that employers must provide a meal period of at least 30 minutes to nonexempt employees who work more than five hours a day (or more than six hours for employees in the motion picture industry as covered by IWC Order 12-2001).  Meals must begin before the end of the fifth hour.  Notably, employees can waive their meal break provided they work less than six hours in the workday.  There are also exceptions for certain industries, such as the construction, healthcare, group home, manufacturing and baking industries.

If legally required, employers must ensure that employees are relieved of all work-related duties during the entire 30-minute meal period and free to leave the employer’s premises.  An “on-duty” meal period is only permitted when the nature of the work prevents the employee from being relieved of all duties, and the employer and employee agree, in writing, to the on-duty meal period.  The agreement must also state that the employee has the right to revoke the agreement at any time.  On-duty meals are counted as hours worked and paid for at the employee’s “regular rate of pay,” which includes all forms of wages such as hourly earnings, a daily salary, piecework earnings and commissions.

  • Can Employees Get Additional Meal Breaks for Long Shifts?

Employees who work more than 10 hours in a day in California are entitled to a second 30-minute meal break, which must start before the end of the tenth hour.  However, employees can waive the second meal provided they work less than 12 hours and did not waive the first meal break.

  • Are Employees Required to Take a Meal Break?

As noted previously, employees who work less than six hours a day (or 12 hours a day for those working at least 10 hours) can waive their meal break so long as both the employee and employer mutually consent.  Employers may, however, choose to require a break and may discipline or terminate an employee who does not take a break.  Employees should carefully review their employment agreements or an employee handbook if one is provided.

  • Can Employers Shorten an Employee’s Meal Break?

Employers cannot deny or shorten a meal break and must accurately track meal time to ensure employees get the full 30 minutes.  If the employer fails to do so, it must pay a one-hour premium for each workday that the meal period is missed.

Are Employees Entitled to Meal Breaks Under Federal Law?

Under federal law, employees do not have a right to a lunch break, however, if an employer allows a break, it must comply with federal law regarding pay and how the time is counted.  Breaks less than 20 minutes must be paid and the time included as hours worked for overtime purposes.  Breaks over 30 minutes are not required to be paid or counted as part of the hours worked.


To avoid liability under federal, state and local laws, employers should retain an attorney to review their employment and payroll practices regularly.  Employees who believe their rights may have been violated should consult a qualified employment lawyer for advice.  Contact a member of our team for next steps.

Carlianna Dengel is admitted to practice law in New York and California.

Photo by Nielsen Ramon on Unsplash
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