California Meal Breaks
California Labor Laws require that employers provide employees with adequate meal breaks. For most occupations, you are entitled to a meal break after 5 hours of work, provided your total days work is more than 6 hours.
When you are given a meal break, you must be completely relieved of all work related duties and be free to leave your work environment. If you have to answer the phone, watch the store, listen to a presentation, or perform any other work related items, you are not being given a proper meal break and are entitled to additional pay. When you are given a proper meal break and perform absolutely no work related duties during the break and are free to leave your work environment, then the time does not need to be paid for.
The most common violation is having employees eat at their desk while they continue to work. As you are not relieved of all duties, not only are you entitled to be paid for the time you spend working/eating, but you also receive additional compensation in terms of a meal premium. The additional compensation is equal to one hours pay for every day that you miss a meal break.
Another common violation occurs when the employee works more than 10 hours in a day. On these days, the employee is entitled to 2 meal breaks -- each lasting at least 30 minutes. In addition, the meal periods must be no more than 5 hours apart. If the employer fails to provide either one of these breaks, you are entitled to an additional hours pay. However, if you don't get either one, then you still only get the one additional hour of pay, not two hours.
Important Update of California Labor Law Regarding Meal and Rest Breaks
The California Supreme Court has just issued a decision in the case of Murphy v. Kenneth Cole and determined that employees can sue for violations of meal and rest break provisions going back a period of three years. In addition, it is likely that employees would be able to go back a total of four years under unfair competition laws. This is a major help to employees as previously, the DLSE ("Labor Board") had restricted the claims to only a one year period. A copy of this landmark decision can be found here.
California Rest Breaks
California Labor Laws require that employers provide employees with adequate rest breaks. Rest breaks must be provided every 4 hours and last for 10 minutes. The problem is that, unlike meal breaks, the employee can optionally not take the rest break. The employer need only allow the employee the opportunity to take the break. In practice this means that many employer "allow" the employee to take them but "strongly discourage" them from actually taking them. In these cases, the employee is still entitled to an additional 1 hour of pay for any day in which a proper rest period was not provided. Unlike meal breaks, all rest breaks must be fully paid.