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California employers cannot deny breaks to workers

Many California employees may not know if the law protects their right to have a meal break. The truth is that federal law does not mandate such breaks, but a number of states do spell out protections for workers from denied meal breaks. California is one such state, with laws that clearly detail how employers must treat their employees when it comes to workplace meal times.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, meal or coffee breaks are actually not required under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Federal law considers meal periods, which are defined as periods of at least thirty minutes, as rest periods. During meal periods, the worker is relieved of duty to eat a regular lunchtime meal. Federal law does not consider it a rest period if the worker is eating while engaging in any workplace duties. The Department of Labor website cites a hypothetical example of a worker maintaining a post at a machine while eating a meal as an example of an unrelieved employee. Also, since employees have temporarily suspended their duties during mealtime, federal law does not require employees to be compensated for this time period.

Federal work law, however, leaves it open to states to decide whether to mandate workplace meal periods. According to California's Department of Industrial Relations, California law does require that employers provide their workers with a meal period lasting no less than thirty minutes if the workday lasts for at least five hours. In cases when the work day exceeds ten hours, the employer must provide a second meal period of at least thirty minutes. Mirroring the requirements of federal law, an employee must be relieved of work during the meal period, or the worker must be paid for the time.

If an employer fails to provide a meal period, California law requires that the worker is to be paid a single hour of regular pay for each workday in which the worker does not receive a meal break. Should an employer not pay the additional wage, workers are entitled to file wage claims with the state’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.

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