You are entitled to a first meal period (of at least 30 minutes) no later than the end of your fifth hour of work, and a second meal period (of at least 30 minutes) no later than the end of your tenth hour of work. If you cannot take a meal break due to a work-related reason, then you are entitled to receive one hour of pay (called "premium pay") at your normal hourly rate even if your meal period is only 30 minutes long. You are also entitled to an hour of premium pay if your meal period is interrupted by work and you are not able to take an uninterrupted, 30 minute meal period, or if you are only able to take a meal period after your fifth hour of work.
2. Rest breaks
You are entitled to a ten minute rest period on shifts of 3 1/2 to six hours, a second 10 minute rest period on shifts of more than six hours, and a third ten minute rest period on shifts of more than ten hours. As with meal breaks, if you cannot take a rest break due to a work-related reason, then you are entitled to receive one hour of pay ("premium pay") at your normal hourly rate. You are also entitled to an hour of premium pay if your rest break is interrupted by work and you are not able to take an uninterrupted, 10 minute rest break. Your should generally get your rest breaks in the middle of your work period (e.g., one break after two hours of work in the morning and one break after two hours of work in the afternoon on an 8 hour shift). Employers must make "good faith" efforts to provide rest periods within the middle of work periods, but need not do so "where practical considerations render it infeasible." This is most likely to be an issue if you work in a restaurant or other service-oriented business.
3. Voluntarily skipping breaks; being pressured or coerced to skip breaks
Whether you take a meal or a rest break is entirely up to you. You can voluntarily work through a meal or a rest break, or take a shortened meal or rest break. If you choose not to take a meal or rest break, you are not entitled to premium pay. However, your employer may not "coerce," "pressure" or "encourage" you to skip meal or rest breaks, so if you are skipping breaks due to your supervisor's pressure, you are entitled to an hour of premium pay. Also, if you are voluntarily skipping a meal period, you are of course entitled to be paid for the time you actually work. So, while you will not be entitled to premium pay because your decision to skip a meal was voluntary, you are still "on the clock" and should be paid for the time you are working through a meal. If you punch a clock, this will be taken care of by simply not punching out. If you do not have a time clock, then you should make sure your supervisor knows you are working through a meal to insure that you get paid. This is not an issue with rest breaks since rest breaks are paid breaks and you do not clock out for them.
4. Special rule for waiving a meal break
Many employees who work only 5 or 6 hours a day would prefer not to take a 30 minute meal period so that they can leave work thirty minutes earlier. This is permitted if you have waived your right to a meal period in writing. If you are simply skipping a meal once in a while and getting your supervisor's permission to leave early, then you are simply voluntarily choosing not to take a meal that day. But if your regular schedule is to work from 9 a.m. to 2:30 pm without a break (except for a 10 minute rest break), you need to waive that meal period in writing. If you have not waived your meal period in writing, then you are technically entitled to receive an hour of premium pay for every day of work.
5. Computing premium pay owed for meal or rest breaks
California has a rather strange way of determining how much premium pay you are owed. Under this rule, for each day of work, rest periods and meal periods are considered separately, and the number of rest periods or meal periods missed each day is irrelevant. In other words, you can get one hour of premium pay per day for missing rest breaks (no matter how many rest breaks you missed that day), and only one hour per day of premium pay for missed meal periods (no matter how many meal periods you missed that day). So, if on Monday you missed one rest break and one meal period on a ten hour shift, your premium pay (of two hours) will be exactly the same as on Tuesday if you missed both rest breaks and both meal periods.
6. Watch out for overtime issues
If you normally work an 8 hour shift with a 30 minute meal period, and you voluntarily chose to skip a meal, you will end up working 8.5 hours that day and will therefore be entitled to half an hour of overtime. Your employer is required to pay you for this time at your overtime rate. However, many employers have a policy that no employee may work overtime unless they have gotten prior approval from a supervisor, and employees are sometimes terminated for repeated violations of this policy. If you do skip a meal break, and will be entitled to overtme if you leave work at your normal time, you should talk to your supervisor and either get approval for the overtime or get permission to leave work a half hour earlier. It is very possible that your employer will tell you that you should take your meal period so that they are not in the situation of having to let you leave 30 minutes early or pay overtime. You can be terminated for failing to comply with such requests.
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