Labor Code § 512 requires California employers to give unpaid lunch breaks to non-exempt employees. Lunch breaks must be uninterrupted. Employers cannot require employees to do any work while on their lunch breaks. They also cannot discourage employees from taking one. However, the employer and employee can agree to waive the meal break if the worker’s shift is less than 6 hours.
If employers violate Labor Code 512, they can be liable for back pay and penalties.
The full text of the statute reads as follows:
512. (a) An employer shall not employ an employee for a work period of more than five hours per day without providing the employee with a meal period of not less than 30 minutes, except that if the total work period per day of the employee is no more than six hours, the meal period may be waived by mutual consent of both the employer and employee. An employer shall not employ an employee for a work period of more than 10 hours per day without providing the employee with a second meal period of not less than 30 minutes, except that if the total hours worked is no more than 12 hours, the second meal period may be waived by mutual consent of the employer and the employee only if the first meal period was not waived.
(b)(1) Notwithstanding subdivision (a), the Industrial Welfare Commission may adopt a working condition order permitting a meal period to commence after six hours of work if the commission determines that the order is consistent with the health and welfare of the affected employees.
(2) Notwithstanding paragraph (1), a commercial driver employed by a motor carrier transporting nutrients and byproducts from a commercial feed manufacturer subject to Section 15051 of the Food and Agricultural Code to a customer located in a remote rural location may commence a meal period after six hours of work, if the regular rate of pay of the driver is no less than one and one-half times the state minimum wage and the driver receives overtime compensation in accordance with Section 510.
(c) Subdivision (a) does not apply to an employee in the wholesale baking industry who is subject to an Industrial Welfare Commission wage order and who is covered by a valid collective bargaining agreement that provides for a 35-hour workweek consisting of five 7-hour days, payment of one and one-half times the regular rate of pay for time worked in excess of seven hours per day, and a rest period of not less than 10 minutes every two hours.
(d) If an employee in the motion picture industry or the broadcasting industry, as those industries are defined in Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Order Numbers 11 and 12, is covered by a valid collective bargaining agreement that provides for meal periods and includes a monetary remedy if the employee does not receive a meal period required by the agreement, then the terms, conditions, and remedies of the agreement pertaining to meal periods apply in lieu of the applicable provisions pertaining to meal periods of subdivision (a) of this section, Section 226.7, and Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Order Numbers 11 and 12.
(e) Subdivisions (a) and (b) do not apply to an employee specified in subdivision (f) if both of the following conditions are satisfied:
(1) The employee is covered by a valid collective bargaining agreement.
(2) The valid collective bargaining agreement expressly provides for the wages, hours of work, and working conditions of employees, and expressly provides for meal periods for those employees, final and binding arbitration of disputes concerning application of its meal period provisions, premium wage rates for all overtime hours worked, and a regular hourly rate of pay of not less than 30 percent more than the state minimum wage rate.
(f) Subdivision (e) applies to each of the following employees:
(1) An employee employed in a construction occupation.
(2) An employee employed as a commercial driver.
(3) An employee employed in the security services industry as a security officer who is registered pursuant to Chapter 11.5 (commencing with Section 7580) of Division 3 of the Business and Professions Code, and who is employed by a private patrol operator registered pursuant to that chapter.
(4) An employee employed by an electrical corporation, a gas corporation, or a local publicly owned electric utility.
(g) The following definitions apply for the purposes of this section:
(1) “Commercial driver” means an employee who operates a vehicle described in Section 260 or 462 of, or subdivision (b) of Section 15210 of, the Vehicle Code.
(2) “Construction occupation” means all job classifications associated with construction by Article 2 (commencing with Section 7025) of Chapter 9 of Division 3 of the Business and Professions Code, including work involving alteration, demolition, building, excavation, renovation, remodeling, maintenance, improvement, and repair, and any other similar or related occupation or trade.
(3) “Electrical corporation” has the same meaning as provided in Section 218 of the Public Utilities Code.
(4) “Gas corporation” has the same meaning as provided in Section 222 of the Public Utilities Code.
(5) “Local publicly owned electric utility” has the same meaning as provided in Section 224.3 of the Public Utilities Code.
In this article, our California labor and employment law attorneys explain:
- 1. What is California Labor Code 512?
- 2. What types of employees are covered?
- 3. When are employees entitled to a meal break?
- 4. Are meal breaks paid or unpaid?
- 5. Can an employer keep a worker “on-call” during the break?
- 6. What if a worker does not wish to take a meal break?
- 7. What can a worker do if the company violates Labor Code 512?
1. What is California Labor Code 512?
California Labor Code 512 is the state statute that gives certain employees the right to an unpaid meal break during their shift. The law is meant to allow employees to have a rest during their workday. It is also meant to prevent employers from keeping employees on the clock for too long without a break.
To comply with the law, employers must:
- Relieve their employee of all of their duties,
- Let the worker do what he or she wants and go where he or she pleases for at least 30 minutes, and
- Refrain from impeding the worker, discouraging her from taking a break, or try to control where she goes.
Employers do not, however, have to force their workers to take a break. California Labor Code 512 only requires them to give employees the opportunity to take one.
2. What types of employees are covered?
California Labor Code 512 only applies to non-exempt employees.
Non-exempt employees are workers employed in the following types of occupations:
- Mechanical, or
- Other similar roles.1
The following workers are not covered:
- Workers classified as exempt, such as managers,2
- Independent contractors, and
- Unionized employees in certain fields with collective bargaining agreements that other break schedules.
3. When are employees entitled to a meal break?
Workers covered by California Labor Code 512 can be entitled to a meal break if their shift is long enough:
- Less than 5 hours: No required meal break,
- Between 5 and 6 hours: A 30-minute meal break that can be waived by the employee,
- Between 6 and 10 hours: A 30-minute meal break,
- Between 10 and 12 hours: A 30-minute meal break, plus a second 30-minute meal break that the employee can waive if he did not already waive the first one, and
- More than 12 hours: 2 meal breaks of 30 minutes each.
These meal breaks do not have to happen every 5 hours. The first break merely has to occur before the employee has worked more than 5 hours. The second has to happen before the employee has worked more than 10 hours.3
Example: Amy arrives for a 12-hour nursing shift at noon. The law does not require her breaks to happen at 5 pm and 10 pm. Instead, the first break can happen anytime before 5 pm. The second break can happen anytime before 10 pm.
4. Are meal breaks paid or unpaid?
The meal break required under California Labor Code 512 is not paid. Employers can, however, provide a paid lunch period if they choose to do so. It can also become a paid lunch period if the employer requires a worker to take their break “on duty.”
5. Can an employer keep a worker “on-call” during the break?
Employers are only allowed to keep a covered employee “on-call” or “on duty” during their break if:
- The nature of the job keeps the employee from being completely relieved of his duties during break, and
- The employee agrees to stay at work during meal periods, in writing, and the agreement allows the worker to revoke the agreement.4
In these cases, the break is a paid one.
Employers also cannot give employees work to do while they are on break or require them to remain on premises during a break. If the company does give them work or requires that they stay on premises, it is treated as if they denied the break entirely, because it interrupts the time off. The company would then be liable to pay “premium pay” for the interruption.
Premium pay is one hour at the worker’s regular rate of pay. This hour does not count towards a worker’s overtime pay.
Furthermore, workers are entitled to prejudgment interest on any unpaid wages that accrues prior to payment. It is usually 10% a year if there was a contract or 7% a year if there was no contract.5
6. What if a worker does not wish to take a meal break?
Employees can waive their meal break if their shift is less than 6 hours long.
If the shift is 6 hours or longer, however, their employer is required to provide a meal break. The meal break is not mandatory, though. The employee can voluntarily continue to work through their break.6
If the employer has reason to know that an employee is working through their break, it must pay them at their regular rate.7
7. What can a worker do if the company violates Labor Code 512?
Employees can sue their employers for not complying with the meal break rules. Wage and hour lawsuits against employers for not leaving workers alone during their breaks are common. They frequently lead to class action claims because numerous workers are victimized.
- 8 California Code of Regulations 11040.
- Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, 53 Cal.4th 1004 (Cal. 2012).
- 8 California Code of Regulations 11040(11).
- Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc., 134 Cal.App.4th 728 (Cal. App. 2006). Estrada v. Royalty Carpet Mills, Inc. (Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three, 2022) 76 Cal. App. 5th 685. Naranjo v. Spectrum (2022) 13 Cal. 5th 93.
- Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, Supra.
- Morillion v. Royal Packing Company, 22 Cal.4th 575 (Cal. 2000).