Wage and Hour Laws in California: A Guide to Overtime, Minimum Wage, and Meal Breaks

A forklift carries a pallet of bricks on a construction site here in Los Angeles, California.

California has wage and hour laws in place that protect employees in relation to overtime pay, minimum wage, and meal breaks. When these laws aren’t upheld, employees have options.

The State of California has careful laws in place that are designed to protect employees in relation to a wide range of factors, including overtime pay, minimum wage, meal breaks, and beyond. If you’re an employee in California, protecting your rights is paramount, and an experienced California labor law attorney can help.

Employees Are Entitled to Protections

In California, labor codes dictate that all workers are employees unless the employer can prove otherwise. To do so, an ABC test must be employed. This means that, to prove a worker is an independent contractor and not an actual employee, the employer must demonstrate all the following:

  • The work is absent the control and direction of the hiring entity.
  • The work performed is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business.
  • The worker customarily engages in independently established work of the same nature.

It is the employer’s task to prove the worker isn’t an employee – not the other way around. If your employer has erroneously classified you as an independent contractor, you can take any of the following actions:

  • Filing a lawsuit in court
  • Making a wage claim with the Labor Commissioner’s Office
  • Reporting a labor law violation with the Labor Commissioner’s Office regarding widespread violations that affect a group of workers

Minimum Wage in California

The State of California has one of the highest minimum wages in the country. On January 1, 2023, minimum wage in the state increased to $15.50 per hour for all employees. This is up from the minimum in 2022 for employers who had 25 employees or fewer. It’s important to note that some cities and counties in California have higher minimum wages. For example, the City of Los Angeles implements a minimum wage of $16.04.

California is also affected by federal minimum wage laws, but because the state minimum is higher than the minimum wage set by the federal government, state law prevails.

Contract Workers

Those who are paid per unit of work, are paid by the piece, or are paid by the day or week are generally called contract workers. The wages contract workers receive in California must rise to at least the level of the state, city, or county’s minimum hourly wage.

Exceptions to Minimum Wage

There are very few exceptions when it comes to California’s minimum wage laws. The only instances when employers are not required to abide by the set minimum wage include the following:

  • Those employees who work as camp counselors
  • Those employees who work on commission as outside salespeople, which means earning a percentage of each sale
  • Those employees who are close family members of the employer


In California, tips are the property of the employee to whom they’re given or for whom they’re left. Your employer cannot keep any part of your tips, cannot deduct any amount of your tips from your regular wages, and cannot require you to share your tips with your manager or supervisor. Tips are distinct from wages, and employers who violate California’s strict tip laws can face misdemeanor criminal charges that can lead to jail time and fines.

Overtime Pay

California also has firm overtime pay requirements in place. These apply somewhat differently in relation to the kind of job one has. Most employees, however, are entitled to overtime pay according to the following guidelines:

  • For every hour over 8 that an employee puts in per day, they are entitled to at least 1.5 times their pay rate
  • For every hour over 40 that an employee puts in per week, they are entitled to at least 1.5 times their pay rate
  • When employees work a seventh day in any given work week, they are entitled to overtime pay for the first 8 hours

Personal Attendants

If you work as a personal attendant, the rules regarding overtime are somewhat different. Only after you’ve worked 9 hours in a day or have put in 45 hours for the week does the overtime rate of 1.5 times regular pay kick in.

Agricultural Workers

Agricultural workers are also an exception. As of January 1, 2022, employers with 26 or more employees who are agricultural workers are guided by the same rules that apply to most workers, which includes paying them overtime wages of 1.5 times their regular wages for any hours over 8 in a day or for any hours over 40 in a week. For those employers with 25 or fewer agricultural employees, however, overtime doesn’t apply until the nine-hour mark per day and the 45-hour mark per week. Each year, this recalibrates until it meets the standard rate on January 1, 2025.

Exempt and Nonexempt Employees

Nonexempt employees refer to those employees to whom the wage and overtime laws discussed apply. Some salaried employees, however, are identified as exempt. To qualify as exempt, the employee must earn at least twice the minimum hourly wage based on a 40-hour week. When this is the case, exempt salaried employees generally aren’t eligible for overtime because they are exempt from the state’s wage and hour laws. As of 2023, only those salaried employees who earn annual incomes of at least $64,480 can be identified as exempt. It’s important to note that some salaried employees are also nonexempt employees, which means that all wage and overtime laws apply to them.

Exempt employees tend to include:

  • Independent contractors
  • Unionized employees in specific industries
  • Those considered white-collar employees

While nonexempt employees can also be salaried, they cannot earn less than minimum wage. Additionally, they are not exempt from requirements related to meal and rest breaks or to overtime pay.

The Administrative Exemption

The largest group of employees who are exempt from wage and break laws in California are in what is known as the administrative exemption, which includes those who work in the following arenas:

  • In an administrative capacity
  • In a managerial capacity
  • In an executive capacity
  • In a professional capacity

To qualify in this exception category, the following tests must be met:

  • The employee is engaged primarily in executive, administrative, or professional duties, which means that the employee spends about 50 percent or more of their time on the job engaged in these duties.
  • The employee is required to consistently exercise discretion and independent judgment on the job.
  • The employee earns a salary that is at least twice California’s minimum wage based on a 40-hour workweek.

Meal and Rest Break Laws

Nonexempt employees are entitled to meal and rest breaks that are important to their overall well-being on the job. These breaks can be divided into four basic categories that include the following:

  • If you work more than 5 hours in a day, you are entitled to a lunch break that lasts at least 30 minutes.
  • While you don’t have to be paid for this break, it must begin prior to your fifth hour of work coming to an end.
  • If you put in more than 10 hours in a workday, you’re entitled to a second meal break.
  • For every 4 hours you put in on the job, you’re entitled to a paid rest break of 10 minutes. To the degree that it’s possible to do so, these breaks should be dispersed evenly throughout the day, which means breaking up each 4-hour period.
  • You can only be required to have an on-duty meal period if the nature of your position makes going off duty impossible and you sign a related waiver.

Employees who aren’t provided with the meal and rest breaks to which they are entitled can sue their employers for damages.

Meal Breaks

Employees who put in more than 5 hours of work in a day, as mentioned, are entitled to an unpaid meal break that lasts at least 30 minutes. As an employee, however, you can waive this break if you won’t be working more than six hours in the day. Employees who put in more than 10 hours of work in a given day can waive the second meal break to which they’re entitled only if both the following apply:

  • The employee doesn’t log more than 12 hours in the day.
  • The employee didn’t waive the first meal break.

Employees cannot be required to remain on the premises during their meal breaks. When employees are required to do so, they are entitled to compensation in the form of premium pay.

Rest Breaks

Employees are entitled to paid rest breaks of at least 10 minutes per four hours logged in the day. To the extent that it’s reasonable to arrange, these breaks should fall in the middle of each four-hour stretch. Employees who work fewer than 3 and a half hours in a day are not entitled to paid breaks.

These meal and rest break requirements apply only to nonexempt employees. Exempt employees and independent contractors are not covered. Further, these break requirements are somewhat different for unionized employees in specific industries who employ their collective bargaining power to afford them unique break arrangements. These collective bargaining agreements override state laws for all the following:

  • Unionized employees in the construction field
  • Unionized employees who work as commercial drivers
  • Unionized employees who work for electrical and gas companies
  • Unionized employees who work as security officers
  • Unionized employees who work in the motion picture industry

If You’re Asked to Work During Your Breaks

Generally, employers can’t require employees to work during their breaks or to remain on call during these times. If your employer does ask you to do so, it amounts to a denial of your legally mandated break. This said, it’s important to point out that employers are not responsible for ensuring that you take your meal and rest breaks. If you choose to skip these breaks, you – not your employer – is responsible for your decision to do so.

On-Duty Meal Periods

Employers can implement what are called on-duty meal periods that require employees to work through their meal breaks only in those situations in which both the following apply:

  • The work involved prevents the employee from being relieved of all duty, such as if they are the only security guard on the job.
  • The employee signs a waiver that reflects their agreement to this arrangement, which can be revoked in writing at any time.

Suing an Employer for Not Allowing Required Breaks

Employees in California have the right to sue employers for the denial of either meal or rest breaks. In instances when employers fails to allow either kind of break, employees are entitled to compensation at the rate of one additional hour of pay per loss. For instance, if you were denied a rest break every day over the course of a year’s employment, it amounts to about 250 lost breaks, which means a successful claim can result in damages in the amount of 250 hours of pay at your normal hourly wage.

If You’re Not Paid What You’re Owed

If your employer fails to pay you what you’re owed, you can take action – in pursuit of back pay and other forms of damage. To begin, you can register your complaint with the California Labor Commissioner. You also, however, have the right to sue your employer to recover compensation for any wages or overtime you’re owed.

It’s Time to Consult with an Experienced California Labor Law Attorney

The trusted labor law attorneys at Blair & Ramirez LLP in Los Angeles are committed to employing the full force of their impressive experience and insight in protection of your employee rights. We offer a free case evaluator and invite you to reach out and contact or call us at 213-568-4000 for more information today.