California labor laws defining lunch breaks may be confusing for some employers which is why many companies end up violating the law. Often times under the press of business employees are forced to skip lunch breaks either because of their large workloads or because they are attempting to meet specific deadlines. Under California law, an employer is required to provide a thirty-minute meal period to any employee who has worked more than five hours in one day. Further, the lunch break must ordinarily be provided within the first 5 hours of the shift. A second meal period of not less than thirty minutes is required for employees that have worked more than ten hours per day.It is important to note that some exceptions apply that are not covered by this article.
Must Be Relieved of All Duty During a Lunch Break
Generally, an employer does not have to pay for time taken by the employee for a lunch break. The employee, however, must be relieved of all duty during the lunch break. If the employee is not relieved of all duty during the meal period, then it is considered “on duty” and is counted as paid time worked. Further, the employee must be permitted to leave the work premises for the lunch break, otherwise it is considered “on duty” and must be paid.
Supreme Court’s Decision on Lunch Break Requirements
In a long awaited 2012 decision the Supreme Court of California decided that “[A]n employer must relieve the employee of all duty for the designated period, but need not ensure that the employee does no work.” The court also established five requirements that employers must follow to comply:
- Employers must relieve employees of all duty;
- Employers must relinquish control over employees’ activities;
- Employers must permit employees a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted thirty-minute break;
- Employers must not impede or discourage employees from taking uninterrupted thirty-minute breaks free of all work duties; and
- Employers must commence the meal period any time prior to the expiration of five hours of work for the first meal period and ten hours of work for the second meal period.
Further, although the employees may choose not to take meal periods, and employers do not need to police the workplace to ensure they are taken, “An employer may not undermine a formal policy of providing meal breaks by pressuring employees to perform their duties in ways that omit breaks.” Employers are therefore violating the law if they exert coercive tactics against taking lunch breaks or create incentives or otherwise encourage workers to forgo or skip meal periods. If an employer knows that an employee has voluntarily decided to work through a provided meal period, the employer must still pay work the employee for the work time, but does not need to pay an hour of premium pay for the missed lunch break.
One Hour of Pay as Penalty for each Denied Lunch Break
For every single failure to provide a compliant lunch break, employers must pay an additional hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate of pay. This is considered a premium pay wage but the additional hour is not tacked on to work hours performed for purposes of calculating overtime. This includes the circumstance when an employer cuts a lunch break short of the required thirty-minute duration, the lunch break was cut short, or the employee was not relieved of all duty, was not free to leave the premises, or was interrupted during the meal period. Although colloquially this concept may be referred to as a penalty which is a term of art, it technically is a considered to be a wage, not a penalty.