How many hours you have to work to get a lunch break will depend on the state. Federal law does not require lunch or meal breaks. Many states, including California, require lunch breaks after 5 hours of work. Other states, such as New York, require one after 6 hours. Some others, such as Arkansas, do not require lunch breaks.
Does federal law require a lunch break?
No, federal employment laws do not require employers to provide a lunch break to workers. Instead, federal law leaves the issue for states to decide.
The regulations for the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) distinguish between short rest periods and meal periods.
Meal periods are those that last 30 minutes or longer, though shorter durations may be allowed in certain circumstances. They are meant to give workers adequate time to eat a meal. To be a bona fide meal period, you must be completely relieved from work duties. However, it is not a requirement that employers let you leave the work premises.
These meal periods are not considered “worktime” under the FLSA.1 This means that you do not have to be paid during your meal period. However, there is nothing in the FLSA that says employers have to provide one.
Rest periods are shorter. They run from 5 to 20 minutes. Rest periods have to be counted as hours worked under the FLSA.2
What are some state laws about meal breaks?
Without the FLSA to make the rules, many states have passed labor laws regarding meal and lunch breaks. Many of these state laws require a meal break after a set number of hours worked. Some of them have rules that are more complex than others. On the other hand, some states do not require meal breaks for workers.
For example, meal break laws in New York are complicated. They do not depend solely on how many hours you work. Instead, they take into account when your shift starts, how long your shift lasts, and where you work.
Typically, you would be entitled to a lunch break if:
- you are an hourly, non-exempt worker,
- you work a shift of more than 6 hours, and
- that shift extends over the lunch hour period of between 11am and 2pm.3
That lunch break has to be at least 30 minutes long, or 60 minutes long if you work in a factory. It can only be taken between 11am and 2pm.4
If your shift is long, you may be entitled to an additional meal break:
- shifts that begin before 11am and go later than 7pm get another meal period of at least 20 minutes between 5pm and 7pm,5
- shifts of more than 6 hours that begin between 1pm and 6am get a 45-minute meal break in the middle of the shift, or 60 minutes if you work in a factory.6
In contrast, many states do not have laws that require a lunch break for workers. Some of these states include:
- New Mexico, and
Some employers in these states may provide one, anyway. Those that do provide a lunch break tend to do so in order to:
- keep workers fresh through the workday,
- recruit good workers,
- retain skilled employees, and
- improve workplace morale.
What is the law in California?
In California, lunch break requirements are covered by California Labor Code 512 LAB. Under this law, you are entitled to a 30-minute meal break once you have worked at least 5 hours in a day.
California Labor Code 512 LAB only covers non-exempt employees. It does not entitle the following types of workers to a lunch break:
- exempt employees,
- independent contractors, and
- certain unionized workers who have a collective bargaining agreement.
During the 30-minute lunch break, you must be:
- relieved of all of your duties, and
- allowed to do what you want and go where you want for at least 30 minutes.
If you are given work to do during your break, the law treats it as a break period that has been completely denied.
Your employer is not allowed to:
- stop you from taking your lunch break,
- discourage you from taking it, or
- control where you go during it.
However, your employer is not required to make you take your lunch break. They only have to provide you a reasonable opportunity to take break time for lunch. If you do not make use of this opportunity, your employer will not be liable.
The lunch break is unpaid. However, some employers choose to make their lunch breaks paid. The break can become a paid one if you are kept on-call during the break.
If you work more than 5 hours but less than 6 hours in a day, you and your employer may agree to waive the lunch break for the work period. Such a waiver has to be with mutual consent.
If you work a longer shift, you may be entitled to more meal breaks. In California, shifts lasting:
- between 10 and 12 hours get a second meal break of 30 minutes that you can waive, if you did not already waive the first meal period, and
- more than 12 hours get 2 meal breaks of 30 minutes.
During these long shifts, the first meal break must be taken before the 5th hour that the employee works. The second has to be taken before you have worked 10 consecutive hours.7
These meal breaks are in addition to your rest breaks. California labor law entitles all non-exempt employees to rest breaks if they work more than three-and-a-half hours (3.5 hours) in a day. You are entitled to a 10-minute rest break for each 4 hours you spend on the job, or for each major fraction of 4 hours.8 These breaks are paid.
This means that the California meal break requirements for covered employees who work a normal 8-hour shift are:
- 2 paid rest breaks of 10 minutes, and
- 1 unpaid lunch period of 30 minutes.
What if my employer violates my state’s rest break laws?
If your employer is violating your state’s rest break laws, you can file a wage and hour lawsuit. This can happen if your employer:
- is ignoring your entitlement to a lunch break,
- is discouraging or preventing you from taking it,
- refuses to let you take a second meal period during long shifts, or
- gives you work to do during your lunch break.
If your rights to a lunch break are being violated, your employer is probably violating the rights of other workers, as well. This can lead to a class action lawsuit.
What you can recover in this lawsuit will depend on the state. In some states, you can recover back pay.
In California, you can recover premium pay, or 1 hour of pay, at your regular rate of pay, for each break you did not receive. This penalizes employers by making them pay a whole hour of wages, even if the break at issue was not an hour long. As long as back wages remain unpaid, prejudgment interest also accrues (usually at 10% a year if there was a contract and 7% a year if there was no contract.)9
In California, you have 3 years from the most recent violation to file this lawsuit.10
- 29 CFR 785.19.
- 29 CFR 785.18.
- New York Labor Code 162(2).
- New York Labor Code 162(1) and (2).
- New York Labor Code 162(3).
- New York Labor Code 162(4).
- Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, 53 Cal.4th 1004 (Cal. 2012). Estrada v. Royalty Carpet Mills, Inc. (Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three, 2022) 76 Cal. App. 5th 685.
- California Labor Code 512 LAB.
- 8 California Code of Regulations 11040 CCR. Naranjo v. Spectrum (2022) 13 Cal. 5th 93.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 338 CCP.