The California Labor Code requires employers to provide their employees with ten-minute rest breaks during the working day. Must those legally mandated rest breaks be free from all work duties? Yes, they must. During a rest break, employers must: (1) relieve employees of all duty; and (2) relinquish control over how the employees spend their time.
As to the first requirement, employers must relieve employees of all duties during a rest break. Employees cannot be required to hang around and pitch in if it gets busy, not even a little bit. Employees cannot even be required to stay “on call” during a rest break, whether that means keeping a walkie-talkie on, or staying near their cell phones in case they need to return to work before their ten-minute break is up.
The second requirement means that employees must have freedom to relax during their rest breaks. Because rest breaks are only ten minutes long, the freedom is not unlimited. An employer can usually require the employee to remain on the premises in order to avoid rest breaks stretching way beyond the ten-minute mark. By the same token, the employer cannot usually force the employees to spend their breaks in a windowless, stuffy “break room” when the employees might otherwise stretch their legs or sit somewhere pleasant.
Both of these rules apply to official and de facto conduct by the employer. If the employer has an official policy or rule that requires employees to stand by during breaks, that policy would violate California labor law. However, the employer does not need to have an official policy in place to violate the law. In reality, it is relatively rare for an employer to have such a blatant, “on paper” violation. Many employers maintain facially neutral policies that indicate employees are “free from all duty” during rest breaks, but reality proves otherwise. In some cases, the employers require the employees to work through their rest breaks; or to cut rest breaks short because of understaffing or poor management. In other cases, the employer might make the employees stay somewhere “out of sight” during rest breaks. In any case, that’s no excuse, and an employer who denies employees their rest breaks may be liable to those employees for unpaid wages and penalties.
Determining whether an employer has violated California labor law can be a tricky, fact-intensive question that requires analysis by an experienced labor and employment attorney. If you think your employer has denied you your right to rest breaks free of all duty and control, you should consult an attorney for advice.