California Labor and Employment Laws: Vacation/PTO, Meal and Rest Break, and Timekeeping Policies

Posted by Amy S. Ramsey | Jan 18, 2024 | 0 Comments

California is known for its progressive approaches and has consistently been a state that looks out for workers' rights. As a worker, it is important to know the intricacies of vacation and PTO time, meal and rest break laws, and timekeeping policies in the workplace. 

Most employees in California work 8 to 10-hour shifts. However, many work odd hours, working more on some days than others. This unreliability can be daunting when tracking hours and reporting shifts. People and businesses with longer or busier shifts often can slip up with lunch and rest breaks, and when these are ignored or overlooked, compensation may be due.

This article will guide you through California employment laws. We will then answer some frequently asked questions. If you feel like you are not being compensated fairly by your employer, it could be time to look into legal action.

PTO or Vacation Time

California law does not require employers to provide any particular amount of paid time off (PTO) or paid vacation days. However, it is illegal in California for employers to have “use-it-or-lose-it” policies (policies requiring employees to use accrued vacation time by a specific date or otherwise forfeit it) because earned vacation time cannot be taken away by employers. 

Vacation time should be treated as if it were earned wages – it accrues as it is earned and cannot be taken away. Once an employee has earned their vacation time, they are entitled to receive it as wages. This means an employer is violating the law if they have forced an employee to forfeit their vacation time without providing compensation.

Question: But my employer's vacation/PTO policy says I no longer accrue vacation past a certain amount. Is this allowed?

If you are employed in California, employers can limit or cap the amount of vacation time employees can accrue without taking the vacation. While there is not a set number of hours for a specific cap, the Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) says the cap on vacation time accrual should be “reasonable,” meaning that vacation caps are allowed. Again, use-it-or-lose-it policies are illegal.

Meal and Rest Break Laws

California meal break laws are much more generous to employees than federal laws. If you are a non-exempt worker, your employer should provide a 30-minute uninterrupted meal break when you work more than 5 hours in a workday. This meal break should be taken before the end of the 5th hour or work. You can waive this meal break if you do not work more than 6 hours that day.

For every 4 hours worked, you are entitled to a 10-minute duty-free, uninterrupted rest break. This should be taken in the middle of each 4-hour period.

Each day an employer fails to comply with meal or rest break requirements, it must pay the affected worker one hour of pay at the regular rate of compensation..
Employers are required by law to make meal and rest breaks available, but they are not required to make you take those breaks. This leaves it up to you as an employee to take a break or skip/waive it, which is legally permitted. Note, however, that your employer might have policies that require you to take all breaks, and you could be disciplined for violating those policies. It is a good idea to speak to your employer before waiving rest or meal breaks or taking them at different times than provided to avoid discipline.

Question: If I am the only employee in the store, can I still take my meal and rest breaks?

Some types of work prevent you from being relieved of all your duties, creating an “on-duty meal period.” This is permitted if you have made a written agreement with your employer to have an on-duty meal break that counts as time worked and is paid time. You are allowed to revoke this agreement in writing whenever you see fit.

Question: What happens if my employer doesn't allow me to take a rest or meal break?

If your employer fails to let you take meal or rest breaks, you are owed one additional hour of pay, at the regular pay rate, for each break you did not get. Many employers have policies requiring employees to report if they are not provided with all meal and rest breaks.

State of California Payday and Pay Period Laws

California law requires most employers to pay their employees semimonthly (or twice in one calendar month) on specific dates set by the law and employer. 

Overtime pay must be paid by an employee's second regular payday after their overtime work. Non-exempt employees are entitled to overtime pay at time-and-a-half of the regular rate if they've worked eight hours a day, forty hours a week, or on the seventh consecutive day of the workweek. 

Employees who are terminated must be paid immediately upon termination. Employees who suddenly quit or resign with no notice must be paid within 72 hours. This paycheck must include wages and also any unused vacation time or PTO. Employers who willfully fail to timely pay final wages are liable for “waiting time penalties” in the amount of one day's pay for each day the pay is late, up to 30 days.

Question: What should I do if my employer does not regularly pay me on time?

Employers need to pay their employees on time. Keeping that in mind, employers have an extra pay period to pay non-exempt employees their overtime wages. There are penalties for not paying employees on time, so if your employer does not follow through with their scheduled pay schedule, you should seek legal guidance to be fairly compensated.

Reporting Time Pay

When non-exempt employees report to work but cannot work their entire shift due to factors caused by the employer, the employees must be paid at least half of their hours, of no less than 2 hours and up to 4 hours.

If you appeared at work for your shift, reported for work remotely, arrived at a client job site for your shift, began a trucking route, or have been required to call in to make sure you are scheduled, you have attempted to report for work. If you were not given enough time to know your employer did not need you for your shift, or if you were sent home early, you must be compensated for at least half of your regular hours.

This rule does not mean employers are required to schedule employees for a minimum of 4 hours. California law does not have a minimum hour requirement for part-time or full-time employment shifts.

Question: I came to my scheduled shift but was sent home after an hour because there was not enough work. Can I receive compensation?

If you are non-exempt, you should be paid reporting time pay, which is your regular rate of pay for half your shift (but no less than 2 hours and no more than 4 hours). If your employer refuses to compensate you, you should seek legal advice regarding your employer's pay practices.

Travel Time Pay Rules

Employees are entitled to be paid for the time it takes to travel when using company transportation, traveling to different worksites, and other travel. 

This is not to be confused with:

  • An employee making the everyday commute to and from work
  • If their employer provides transportation but does not require that mode of transportation to be used by employees
  • During an overnight trip, when an employee takes the time to do things for their leisure.

Question: Sometimes my employer assigns me to work in a different, further location. It takes me two hours to drive each way. Am I entitled to paid travel time wages?

Yes. If your employer needs you to travel from one workplace to another in the same workday, you are entitled to be paid for that travel time that exceeds your normal commute time.

Turn to Advantage Advocates for Employment Law Help In California

There are many types of exemptions and intricacies regarding California wage and hour law. The expert legal team at Advantage Advocates specializes in navigating the complexities of employment law, including wage and hour issues, discrimination, retaliation, harassment, and more.

If you need help and think you have a case against your employer, contact us today to ensure your rights are protected and justice is served.

About the Author

Amy S. Ramsey

Amy S. Ramsey Founder & Attorney [email protected] 626-310-0101 Amy Ramsey works closely with clients to find proactive, practical solutions to employment law disputes, taking an aggressive, measured approach to put employees back into a position of power. Her extensive employ...


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