Any California employee who is considering filing a wage claim for missed meal periods or missed lunch breaks should know that there is some good news and some bad news on this topic.
Here’s the good news about meal period law in California: For every meal period (i.e., lunch break) that a California employer fails to “provide” a non-exempt employee, the employee is owed one hour of pay, going back as many as four years. So, if you were non-exempt and were not provided with meal periods for the last four years, you can file a meal period wage claim to recover that extra hour of pay for every day a meal period wasn’t provided.
Here’s the bad news about California lunch break laws: California law regarding lunch breaks has become less employee friendly. For example, an employer may not have to force you to take a meal period, and you can no longer get your attorney’s fees in a meal period claim under the traditional Labor Code section that provides for attorney’s fees to the winning party in most wage claims.
Generally speaking, if you think you are owed money in a lunch break wage claim or meal period wage claim (lunch breaks are called meal periods under California law), ask yourself the following questions.
If your answer to any of these questions about California meal period law is “yes,” then you may be able to file a meal period wage claim (but nothing is certain considering the current state of the law):
- Did your employer stop you from leaving the work premises during your lunch break?
- Did your employer tell you that you could not take lunch breaks?
- Did your employer fail to give you 30 minutes free of all duty to eat your meal?
- Did your employer criticize you for taking a lunch break?
- Did your employer discipline you for taking a lunch break?
- Do you have any written documents showing that your employer refused to let you take a lunch break?
On the other hand, if you say “yes” to the following questions, your chances of being able to prove a meal period wage claim diminish:
- Was it your choice to work through lunch?
- Did you clock out, continue working, clock back in after 30 minutes, then sign something at the end of the pay period certifying that the hours on the time clock are true and correct?
- Could you leave the premises to go anywhere for your lunch break?
Now, there are some situations when the meal period wage claim will likely prevail. If you answer “yes” to this question, you should contact Strauss & Strauss, APC to discuss potentially filing a missed lunch break wage claim:
- Did the nature of your work preclude you from taking a 30-minute, off-duty meal period when you worked over five hours? An example of this would be a security guard who works alone for an eight-hour shift. He can’t leave to take a lunch break because he’s the only one on duty.
Another example would be a gas station attendant who works the graveyard shift and cannot leave the station unattended for 30 minutes while he eats his meal. Unless the employer had these individuals sign an “on-duty” meal period agreement, they would have to be paid the one hour of pay for a missed meal period every time they could not leave for a lunch break.
These questions are not meant to constitute legal advice. Every situation is different. This is simply what California law says on the topic of meal periods.
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