Are employers required to give employees breaks?

3 min. readlast update: 10.17.2023

There is often confusion regarding whether employers are mandated by law to provide employees with rest and lunch breaks. Many employers in the US would be surprised to learn that there are no federal laws requiring employers to give employees any kind of break. Instead, these regulations are essentially a function of state law. Even so, only a handful of states require employers to provide employees with rest and lunch breaks. One of these states is California.

Generally, California is quite protective of its employees – it tends to go above and beyond other states when ensuring its labor practices are aligned with the employees’ best interests. Rest and meal breaks are no exception. While many states remain silent about employee breaks, California has its own set of guidelines that govern breaks (California Labor Code 512).

Under California law, rest breaks should last no less than ten minutes, but usually no more than twenty, and lunch breaks should last no less than thirty minutes. Employers are required to pay employees during their allotted ten-minute rest break(s) but are not required to pay employees for their thirty-minute lunch break(s). Rest and meal breaks should not be interrupted by the employer, and employees are not required to work during these breaks.

The above conditions specifically apply to non-exempt employees, which includes those employees who are paid to work on an hourly basis. This does not, however, mean that all non-exempt employees receive a paid rest break or unpaid meal break. Instead, this determination is entirely dependent on the number of hours an employee is expected to work in a single day.

Below is a reference guide for employers to use when determining how many breaks an employee should receive, according to California Labor Code 512.


Although there are laws governing the number of breaks to which an employee is entitled, whether an employee takes such breaks is often left to the employee’s discretion. For example, employees are not required to take their rest breaks – they are free to skip these breaks so long as their employer is not encouraging them to do so. Additionally, employees who work less than six hours a day may waive their half-hour-long lunch break provided their employer consents to such a waiver.

Employers are obligated to make breaks available to their employees, but they are not required to ensure the employees take them. Instead, employees are responsible for ensuring they take their allotted break periods. Additionally, employers may require employees to take their paid rest break(s) on work premises; they cannot, however, prevent employees from leaving work premises to take their unpaid lunch break(s).

It should also be noted that breaks are not expected to be lumped together. Meal breaks should be taken after five hours of work. Rest breaks should be taken between the start of the workday and the lunch break, and between the end of the lunch break and the end of the workday.

Although California law controls the minimum number and timeframe of breaks, employers are not prohibited from providing their employees with more frequent or longer break periods, if they so choose. For instance, an employer may permit fifteen-minute rest break periods and hour-long lunches and still be compliant with the California Labor Code.

The above information in no way encompasses all guidelines to consider when determining the frequency and timeframe of employee breaks. Hourly strongly recommends that employers discuss their concerns regarding California Labor Code 512 with a qualified HR consultant or legal professional prior to the implementation of any policy governing employee breaks.

Was this article helpful?