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California "Meal Period" Rules: A Checklist For What You Need To Know

Posted by Leslie Ruhland on Mar 24, 2017 9:00:00 AM
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Do you know the California break laws? Here's a checklist for what you need to know to comply with the "meal period" rules.


[This guest post was provided by Douglas J. Farmer, Attorney, Ogletree Deakins, P.C., San Francisco. He can be contacted at]

California "Meal Period" Rules - A Checklist for What You Need to Know to Comply With the Law

California meal period rules can be tricky. They can also cost your businesses big time if the rules are not followed precisely.

Take the following example of a small business owner who ended up paying “three times” for a meal break violation:

Bob owns an auto repair shop in town, where he employs about 20 mechanics. His mechanics are normally scheduled to take a 30-minute, unpaid meal break during their eight-hour shift. When things get busy, Bob requires his mechanics to take “working lunches,” where the mechanics eat a quick sandwich while servicing cars.

One of the mechanics files a complaint with the California Labor Commissioner alleging he is not being provided with meal breaks according to California law. All of the other mechanics are now interested in making similar claims, which the Labor Commissioner will investigate going back three years.

In a situation such as this, Bob’s failure to “provide” a legally required meal break will result in him owing his mechanics the following under California law:

(1) a “wage premium” in the amount of one hour of pay for requiring the mechanics to work during their legally required 30 minute, duty free meal period;

(2) pay for the half hour of work; and

(3) overtime pay at time and a half for the additional half hour of work beyond eight hours in the workday.

Employers like Bob can protect themselves against these risks by checking their meal period policies and practices against the legal compliance checklists below.

Checklist for First Meal Period

  • California’s meal period rules cover employers of all sizes – there is no exception for small businesses;
  • Employers may not require employees to work more than five (5) hours a day without providing the employee with an initial meal period of at least 30 minutes;
  • The first meal period provided must start by the end of the fifth hour of work (e., by 4 hours and 59 + minutes into the shift), unless the law provides otherwise;
  • The meal period must include an uninterrupted 30 minute period during which the employee is relieved of all duty;
  • The meal period must be “duty free.” This means employees cannot be required to work during the meal period, and must be allowed to leave the premises. Employees may not otherwise be discouraged from taking the required meal break;
  • Unless the employee is relieved of all duty during the 30 minute meal period, the meal period will be considered an “on duty” meal period, and must be compensated by the employer as time worked;
  • If the employee is not provided a required meal break, the employer will also owe the employee a “wage premium” in the amount of one hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate of compensation.
  • If the employee works during an otherwise duty free meal break, the employee’s eight hour shift could also now extend beyond eight hours, subjecting the employer to daily overtime;
  • Employers must also keep accurate time records showing when employees take their meal periods (i.e., the employee must clock out for meal breaks and clock in upon return in a way that reflects precise start and end times for the meal breaks); and,

Checklist for Second Meal Period

  • An employee may not be required to work more than ten (10) hours without providing a second duty free meal period of at least 30 minutes;
  • The second meal break must start within the first ten (10) hours of work;
  • The same general rules for first meal periods apply to second meal periods;

 Checklist for Waiving Meal Periods

  • If the employee’s total work period for the day is no more than six (6) hours, the first meal period can be waived by mutual consent of both the employer and the employee. The waiver can but need not be in writing;
  • If the employee’s total hours worked is no more than 12 hours, the second meal period may be waived by mutual consent of the employer and the employee, but only if the first meal period has not been waived. Consent can but need not be in writing;

Checklist for Payment of "Wage Premium" for Failure to Provide Meal Period

  • If an employer fails to provide an employee a meal period as required by law, the employer must pay the employee one additional hour of pay at the employee’s regular hourly rate (i.e., a “wage premium” or “premium pay”);
  • There is a limit of one “wage premium” each work day that one or more meal periods is not provided;

Checklist for When You Are Required to Provide Food and Drink

  • If a meal period occurs on a shift beginning or ending at, or between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., employers must make facilities available for securing hot food and drink or for heating food or drink. The employer must also make available a suitable sheltered place where employees can eat and drink;

Additional Resources

For additional information on California meal period requirements, see, D. Farmer, California Employment Law: The Complete Survival Guide to Doing Business in California, available for purchase at Or email the author for a meal period policy template.

Douglas J. Farmer is an Attorney at Ogletree Deakins, P.C., in San Francisco. He can be contacted at


Payroll Management Best Practices and California Labor Law

As a business owner, or HR or payroll manager, you are responsible for payroll compliance and knowing CA labor law where it applies to your business. Fortunately,you have a number of options for your payroll functions. Software that can be installed in-house, or cloud-based programs offer a good alternative.

But if you really want to take full advantage of the benefits available to you, outsourcing to a provider like Accuchex can still be the best decision.

If you are currently looking to invest in outsourcing, download our free resource, the Payroll Outsourcing Guide, to help you make an informed decision.

Or call Accuchex Payroll Management Services at 877-422-2824.

In addition, you can find helpful guidance with our California Labor Laws: Breaks, Employees, And The Rules guide by clicking this button:

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Topics: ca labor laws, california labor law, meal and rest breaks, employee lawsuits, california break laws

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