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Rest and meal breaks can feel like a gray area. An employee isn’t done with their shift and often stays at their job during the break period. So can an employer ask that worker to be responsible for anything while on a rest or meal period?

The law is pretty clear about the answer.

Rest and meal period requirements

Under California law, employees are entitled to rest and meal periods during all but the shortest shifts. Employers generally have to offer:

  • A 30-minute meal period for every five hours worked
  • A 10-minute paid rest period for every four hours worked

During longer shifts, these can stack. In some situations, an employee may be able to take two meal periods or three rest periods. However, there are a handful of very limited exceptions.

An employee has to be completely free

During a rest or meal break, an employee has to be completely free from work duties in order for it to be considered a lawful break period.

For example, for a meal period, an employer has to:

  • Relieve the employee of all job duties
  • Give up control over the worker’s activities
  • Allow the employee a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break
  • Not discourage or prevent the employee from taking their meal period

Employees must be similarly free from work duties during rest periods. An employer can’t require them to stay in radio communication or remain on-call during that time, for example. Keep in mind there are a few pretty narrow exceptions to these laws.

Penalties for denying or restricting breaks

What happens if an employer doesn’t allow lawful meal and rest periods? The employee that didn’t receive proper breaks could receive extra pay as compensation.

Under the law, for every day there is a meal period violation, an employee is eligible to receive one hours’ worth of their standard pay. The same applies to rest periods. So, if an employer did not give an employee both their rightful rest and meal periods for five days, that employee may be eligible to receive 10 hours of additional pay – one hours’ pay per violation, per day.