A Comprehensive Guide to the California Lunch Break Law

Understand your rights as an employee under California’s lunch break law. Call Waltman Employment Law for more information.

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California’s Lunch Break Law Explained

California is renowned for its progressive and worker-friendly employment laws, and the California Lunch Break Law is one of the reasons for the state’s popularity in this area. 

The lunch break law is an informal designation for the collection of regulations and statutes that mandate employers to grant their staff sufficient time to rest and eat during their shifts. By these laws, your employer does not do you any favors by allowing you to take meal breaks at work. That is your right as a California employee.

However, the rules for meal and rest breaks may vary depending on the nature and duration of work. Familiarizing yourself with the rules is crucial to knowing when your rights have been breached and holding your employer accountable. That is why we have compiled this user-friendly guide that explains the fundamentals of the California lunch break law.

For personalized guidance on your lunch break rights or other employment law issues, you can contact Waltman Employment Law. Our experienced employment law attorney can assess your case, advise you on the extent of your rights, and help you pursue a suitable course of action if they have been breached.

Please keep reading to learn more. 

When Are California Employees Entitled to Meal Breaks?

According to the California Labor Code, employees working more than five hours each day are generally entitled to a minimum 30-minute unpaid meal break period.

Meal breaks differ from rest periods, and an employee entitled to both must be allowed to observe both breaks separately. One does not cancel out the other.

However, there are a few exceptions to the above meal break rule. For example, employees in the motion picture industry are entitled to a meal break after working or six hours instead of five. Additionally, the meal break law requirements may not apply to employees in unionized industries with valid collective bargaining agreements for a separate meal break schedule. In such instances, the affected employee’s meal breaks typically follow the terms of the agreement.

Elements of a Valid Meal Break

Unpaid meal breaks provided by employers must meet certain requirements to be valid;

  • It should be uninterrupted.
  • It must be off duty; the employee on a meal break should be relieved of all work duties
  • It should allow the employee to leave the worksite during the break.
  • The employer should neither discourage nor prevent the employee from taking the break.

If the meal break does not meet these criteria, the employer must compensate the employee for the entire meal period. 

It is important to note that employers are not obligated to force employees to take a meal or rest break. They must, however, provide a reasonable opportunity for employees to take such breaks.

What if an Employee Works Way Longer Than Five Hours Daily?

As stated earlier, an employee who works for more than five hours daily is entitled to a meal break of 30 minutes before the fifth hour of work ends.

If an employee works for 10 hours or longer in a single day, the employer must provide a second meal break of 30 minutes or longer by the 10th hour of work. That means an employee working 10 hours daily is entitled to a minimum cumulative one-hour off-duty meal period.

However, if an employee does not work more than six hours daily, the meal break may be waived by mutual consent of both the employer and the employee. Similarly, if an employee’s total work hours in a day is not more than 12 hours, the requirement for a second meal break may be waived by mutual agreement between both parties as long as the first meal break was not waived.

Enforcing Your Rights Under the California Lunch Break Law


If your employer violates this law by interrupting your meal break or failing to provide one, you are entitled to one hour of pay at your regular rate. This payment is known as meal period premium pay and can be collected for each day the meal period is not provided. 

Knowing the appropriate channels for redress is essential if your employer fails to pay you for missed lunch breaks. In such cases, you can file a wage claim with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (the Labor Commissioner’s Office) within three years of the violation. 

Wage claims may be filed online, by mail, e-mail, or in person. After filing the Labor Commissioner’s Office will investigate your claim to determine if your employer has violated the lunch break laws of California. They may schedule a settlement conference to informally resolve the issues between you and your employer. But if that fails, a formal hearing would be scheduled so a designated hearing officer can make a decision about your claim.


Why You Need an Employment Law Attorney

To succeed during the resolution process or hearing, you’ll need to gather facts and evidence that prove your entitlement to premium pay, such as pay stubs and details of your usual work hours. Thankfully, you have the right to legal representation; it would benefit you to exercise this right and get help from a skilled employment lawyer.

Your lawyer can help you identify any relevant information that could solidify your claim. They can also represent you during the hearing and help present your case logically and convincingly, making it more likely for the hearing officer to see things from your perspective and decide in your favor.

Furthermore, you can file an appeal in court if you disagree with the hearing officer’s decision. But the appeal process, like most legal proceedings, is complex and could be difficult to navigate. Employment law attorneys, however, are already familiar with how the process works based on their legal training and experience. They can guide you throughout the appeal and work diligently to steer your case toward a positive outcome.


Can You File a Lawsuit Against Your Employer for Unpaid Meal Period Premium Pay?

In addition to your right to initiate a wage claim, you can also file a civil lawsuit against your employer for your unpaid wages. But before you pursue either course, you need to consider which option would likely lead to the desired results.

Our employment law attorney at Waltman Employment Law understands how the wage claim process and unpaid wage lawsuits work. They can provide you with the details needed to make an informed choice and represent you as you fight for your rights regardless of the path you choose.

Protect Your Rights Under the California Lunch Break Law With Help From Waltman Employment Law

Having lunch breaks at work is a right and not a privilege under California’s lunch break law. Suppose your employer wants you to keep working when you should be on a meal break or otherwise interrupt or violates your enjoyment of this right; they have to pay you for your time. If they fail, you can take legal action against them to compel them to fulfill their obligation.

However, the legal processes for pursuing such claims could be complicated, often discouraging employees from seeking redress when their rights have been breached. But you don’t have to suffer in silence.

At Waltman Employment Law, we are passionate about safeguarding the rights of California’s hardworking employees in San Diego, Riverside, Orange, and Los Angeles Counties.

We understand the intricacies and challenges of enforcing the rights established by the lunch break law in California. With our extensive experience, we can represent you as you fight for your entitlements and work tirelessly to help you achieve your desired outcome.

Our outstanding San Diego Wrongful Termination Lawyer can also provide solid legal advice and quality representation if your employment has been unfairly terminated or you have any other issue centered on your rights as a California employee.

Contact us today to share your concerns. Let us help you take the next steps toward enforcing your rights and finding justice.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) 


Can an employee waive their lunch break in California?

In California, employees may waive their lunch break only if the total work period is no more than six hours in a day. It is crucial for both the employee and employer to agree mutually to this waiver. Without such an agreement, the break cannot legally be skipped.

What qualifies as a compliant meal break?

A compliant meal break under California law is an uninterrupted 30-minute break where the employee is completely relieved of all duties. This break should not be given during the first two hours of work or the last two hours, ensuring it falls reasonably in the middle of the work period for maximum rest.

How should employees report violations of lunch break laws?

Employees should report any violations to the California Labor Commissioner’s Office. This can be done through an online form, email, or by mailing a detailed complaint. Reporting is confidential and can help address not only individual grievances but also prevent future violations for others.