There are many different laws that regulate lunch and rest breaks in the workplace. On the federal level lunch breaks do not necessarily have to be paid unless they fall under three categories: if the state law requires the time to be compensated, if the employee continues to work throughout their break, or if the break is 20 minutes or less. Likewise, unions can influence the regulations of lunch break if a union collective bargaining agreement determines that the breaks should be paid, regardless of state laws. The states, on the other hand, vary in their laws regarding lunch periods.
In California, there are multiple laws in place to regulate how employers give lunch breaks to employees. If an employee works five or more hours, they are entitled to an unpaid lunch break of at least 30 minutes. However, if their work day is no more than 6 hours, they have the right to come to a mutual agreement with their employer that they will waive their lunch period. But what exactly entails a just, lawful lunch period?
According to California state law, a lunch period can be considered on or off duty, which affects how it is compensated. An “on duty” meal period is when the nature of the employee’s job prevents them from being completely relieved of all work duties and should be compensated at the regular pay rate. However, “off-duty” meal periods are unpaid but have a set list of regulations.
For a just and lawful lunch break, an employer must relieve employees of all work, relinquish control over their activities, permit them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30 minute break, and must not impede or discourage employees from taking their meal period. Hence, if your lunch break is interrupted by your employer, you must be compensated.
Though meal periods are generally unpaid, California law specifically states that employers cannot interrupt their employees’ meal periods with work duties, and if they do the employee has a right to compensation. Additionally, rest breaks – 10 minutes paid rest periods for every 4 hours of work – must also be uninterrupted. In the 2012 case of Brinker Restaurant Corporation v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court reaffirmed that a lawful meal period must adhere to these specific rules, explicitly stating that the break cannot be interrupted.
Therefore, if your employer interrupts your lunch break, consider speaking to them about their duty to provide you with an uninterrupted lunch period, or a paid lunch period if they need you to remain “on duty.” If your employer refuses to adhere to California’s lunch period laws, it may be time to take legal action.