In California an employer must provide nonexempt employees a 30 minute uninterrupted off duty meal period, commonly referred to as a lunch break, if the employee works more than five hours in a workday. But the complete meal period must be taken after no more than five hours of time the employee spends working. For example, if a nonexempt employee works 5 hours and 1 minute without receiving the meal period, then the meal period for that workday has been missed and cannot be made up later. Also, the employer would owe the employee an additional hour of pay as a premium wage for the missed meal period.
Because California requires meal periods to be uninterrupted and off duty for a minimum of 30 minutes, no legal meal period or lunch break occurs where an employer calls an employee back to work in the middle of the meal period and directs the employee to finish the rest of the meal period later. For example, if an employee takes a meal period after working for exactly 5 hours and a store manager interrupts the employee 15 minutes into her meal period while she is eating lunch because the store gets busy with customers, and then instructs her to take the remainder 15 minutes of lunch break after working another 45 minutes and the volume of store customers reduces, then no legally compliant meal period occurred even though the employee received a total of 30 minutes of lunch break because the employee did not receive an uninterrupted off duty meal period for 30 consecutive minutes before exceeding a work period of 5 hours.
Under circumstances where an employer interrupts an employee’s lunch break to call her back to work, an employer can only comply with the law by giving an employee a full 30 minute uninterrupted off duty meal period if the employee has not worked for more than five hours yet, or paying the employee an additional hour of pay as a premium wage. To clarify, it would be perfectly legal for an employer to choose to never allow nonexempt employees any lunch breaks and simply pay them each an additional hour of pay as a premium wage for every workday with a missed meal period instead.