Understanding California meal and rest breaks

understanding California meal and rest breaks

In this blog, we cover major legislations and regulations that impact staffing firms and highlight Bullhorn features that firms can leverage as a component of their compliance strategy. Note: This is not legal advice. You should contact your legal counsel concerning any questions or issues regarding compliance.


As clerical and light industrial firms look to expand their business into new geographies, it can be challenging to stay on top of varying legislation in different cities and states. Each state has its own ever-changing labor laws that affect how you do business – and the steps you’ll need to take to stay compliant and avoid legal ramifications. Brinker Restaurant Corp.’s $56 million settlement in the landmark Brinker Restaurant Corporation v. Superior Court case serves as a reminder that noncompliance can be costly.

In California, light industrial firms need to account for meal and rest breaks when paying workers. But it’s not just California; a growing number of other states are also adopting laws requiring firms to provide breaks after a certain number of hours worked. These laws may seem trivial, but the costs of not complying with them can add up for staffing firms. 

Let’s dive into what meal and rest breaks are and how Bullhorn can help you and your firm pay workers accurately, provide necessary breaks, and stay compliant with ease.

What are meal breaks?

California legislation stipulates that workers are provided with one uninterrupted, 30-minute long meal break for every five hours worked. During this time, employees must have no work duties. Employers may not discourage employees from taking these breaks. If workers are not provided with that meal break, they are owed one hour of penalty pay by their employer. If workers are on the clock for 10 hours, they receive another 30-minute long break. There are many nuances to the specific protections provided, and we recommend you consult a legal professional for a comprehensive overview.

If the number, timing, and duration of breaks taken by employees do not match the rules defined, a break exception occurs. The staffing industry has formulated three types of break exceptions: if the meal break is missing, if a worker takes their meal break too late, or if the meal break is too short. Each of these exceptions is filtered into one tab on your Bullhorn Time & Expense dashboard.

Meal breaks can be managed through web time entry or time clocks with Bullhorn. If your organization uses time clocks, you can easily manage short meal breaks by adding a punch restriction that doesn’t allow workers to clock back in unless they’ve taken the full 30 minutes for their meal.

Five hours can also be interpreted in several different ways. The California Standard Rule triggers the missing or late meal break exception after 300 minutes, but the California 301 Rule triggers these exceptions after 301 minutes. Employers can also choose to follow the Modified rule, which is similar to the California Standard Rule, but does not distinguish between late and missing meal breaks. Bullhorn provides more information on these rules in the Bullhorn Knowledge Base.

If a worker inputs their time and doesn’t indicate that they’ve taken a meal, or if their meal was late, missing, or short, they’ll be prompted to input why they didn’t take their meal break. Based on their answer to this prompt Bullhorn Time & Expense will automatically apply the penalty of an extra hour of pay if a worker did not voluntarily choose to miss their meal break. This worker prompt, which is unique to Bullhorn, is entirely customizable at the client level.

Bullhorn Time & Expense also allows you to include a waiver, which allows workers to waive their right to a meal period based on a signed agreement. They can rescind this at any time. Workers can sign this waiver at any point; most frequently, workers sign it during onboarding. 

Washington has similar legislation, with differences regarding penalty pay. Because state and federal legislation is always changing, we recommend speaking with a legal professional to learn what laws apply to your business.

What are rest breaks?

Rest breaks were introduced in late 2022 and operate similarly to meal breaks: California law stipulates that workers should have a ten-minute break for every four hours worked. If work duties prevent workers from taking their rest break, the pay penalty for employers, as with meal breaks, is one hour of pay. Unlike meal breaks, however, workers do not have to clock out for this break, so enforcing this break requires more management from your firm.

Bullhorn Time & Expense accounts for these rest breaks by prompting the worker to indicate whether they took all of their rest breaks. If they indicate that they didn’t, a pay penalty will be automatically added to their pay. As with meal breaks, the language of this prompt is entirely customizable. Rest breaks are currently supported in Web Time Entry, Tempo Time Clock, and Cloud Cock, and are coming soon to Mobile Punch.

What does this mean for my firm?

With automatic prompts and penalties applied during time entry, it’s easier than ever for light industrial staffing agencies to account for meal and rest breaks when tracking workers’ time. Automatically adding pay penalties saves precious pay and bill time and helps reduce your firm’s risk of liability by ensuring that penalty payments are paid.

“The addition of meal and rest period attestations in California and meal period attestations in Washington has been very beneficial in tracking employees’ missed meal periods,” said a Senior Analyst, Timekeeping & Compliance at Kelly Services. “It eliminates the manual work and the potential for a meal penalty payment to be missed and not paid properly, and helps create a positive employee experience.”

Bullhorn is always closely monitoring legislation to help give you the tools to be compliant. It’s up to you and your firm to leverage these tools, understand changes in legislation, follow best practices, and ensure compliance at every level of your organization.

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