Many California workers know California law provides thirty-minute meal breaks to employees that work more than five hours a day and a second thirty-minute meal break where employees work more than ten hours a day.  However, what is not as well-known is whether employers may require California employees to remain at work during their meal breaks.  This article explores the question posed above and evaluates California worker rights when required to stay at work during meal breaks.

California Employees Entitled to Duty-Free, Uninterrupted Meal Breaks

California employees have the right to thirty-minute meal breaks for shifts lasting more than five hours.  The California Supreme Court has held that California law requires employers provide meal breaks where the employee, “(1) has at least 30 minutes uninterrupted, (2) is free to leave the premises, and (3) is relieved of all duty for the entire period.”  Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, 53 Cal. 4th 1004, 1036 (2012).  The Court continued, stating, “[e]mployers must afford employees uninterrupted half-hour periods in which they are relieved of any duty or employer control and are free to come and go as they please.”  Id. at p. 1037 (italics added).  Specifically, the Court contemplated that California employees should be free to attend to any off-site personal business, such as running errands or going to the gym.  Therefore, the employer violates California law by requiring California employees to remain on-site during their meal breaks.

However, this does not mean that the employer may not establish a “No Leave” policy.  The California Supreme Court declared a California employee’s freedom of movement is prohibited during their meal break, the employer must not only pay the California employee their normal hourly wage, but also pay the California employee premium pay: “If an employer does not provide an employee with a compliant meal period, then the employer must provide the employee with premium pay for the violation.”  Donohue v. AMN Services, LLC, 11 Cal. 5th 58, 58 (2021).

Can Employers Keep California Employees at Work During Meal Breaks? 

Yes, employers may force California employees to remain on premises during their meal breaks, provided the employer complies with requirements set forth in the law.  Where an employer fails to meet these criteria, the California employee is not required to remain at work during their meal breaks.

When requiring California employees to remain on premises during meal breaks, the employer must meet several requirements.  First, when mandating a “No Leave” policy, the employer must pay the California employee during the meal break.  Second, the employer must provide California employees with a suitable place to eat.  The California Department of Labor Standards Enforcement has defined suitable as a sheltered place with everything necessary to secure, heat, and consume hot food and drink.  Third, it is not enough that the employer pays hourly wages to the California employee during their meal break.  Additionally, the employer must also pay premium pay.  The employer satisfies these requirements and can require a “No Leave” policy for meal breaks.

Please note that a minor exception to this rule applies to healthcare workers covered under IWC Order 5-2001.

Do These Requirements Apply to Rest Breaks Too?

No, it is unlikely that the “No Leave” meal break policy requirements apply to rest breaks, too.  In Augustus v. ABM Security Services, Inc., 2 Cal. 5th 257 (2016), the California Supreme Court suggested employers can lawfully require California employees to remain on the premises.  Id. at p. 270.  Contrary to case law confirming a California employee’s right to freedom of movement during meal breaks, no opinion extends the requirement to rest breaks.  Estrada v. Royalty Carpet Mills, Inc., (2022).  Further, California courts recognize material differences between rest breaks and meal breaks, particularly their length.  Rest breaks, typically ten minutes in duration, impose, “practical limitations on an employee’s movement.”  Augustus v. ABM Security Services, Inc., 2 Cal. 5th 257, 270 (2016).  Logically, the California Supreme Court concluded expecting California employees to remain at or near their work on a rest break to be reasonable.  Id.  For these reasons, it is unlikely that, as of the date of this writing, California employees are entitled to the same protections for rest breaks as afforded for meal breaks.

Astanehe Law Knows Employee Rights

If your employer has violated your California rest break rights, contact Astanehe Law.  Astanehe Law has experience representing California employees who have suffered California Labor Code violations, including rest and meal break violations.  Astanehe Law represents clients on a contingency fee basis.  Call us at (415) 226-7170 or email us at