In California, employers must provide a thirty (30) minute off duty meal period or lunch break to nonexempt employees who work a period of more than five (5) hours. The meal period or lunch break must begin before the employee exceeds working five (5) hours.
For the meal period or lunch break to meet the legal requirements, the thirty (30) minute break must be uninterrupted and off duty. This means that for example, a nonexempt employee should have the ability to go to a McDonald’s, any other restaurant, or home for lunch with his or her cell phone off and come back thirty (30) minutes later. If an employer requires the employee to stay on the work premises, work partially or fully through lunch, or even answer phone calls while on meal periods or lunch breaks, then the legal requirements are probably not met.
When a nonexempt employee misses a thirty (30) minute uninterrupted off duty meal period in a workday, an employer must pay the employee an additional one (1) hour of pay at the employee’s regular pay rate on top of the wages earned for every hour actually worked. For example, if an employee only receives a twenty-nine (29) minute off duty meal period or lunch break, then that employee would still be entitled to the full additional one (1) hour of pay even though the employee only had his or her break cut by only one (1) minute less than the required minimum of thirty (30) minutes. Likewise, if an employee has a lunch scheduled from 12:00pm to 12:30pm but has to work through the entire meal period or lunch break, then the employee must be paid for the entire thirty (30) minutes of actual work, plus an additional one (1) hour of pay for missing a lunch break that workday.
Please note that if an exempt employee works for a work period of more than ten (10) hours in a workday, then the employer must provide an employee a second thirty (30) minute off duty meal period before the employee exceeds ten (10) hours of work.