Question: I work retail in a clothing store. I work in California, so I get an unpaid meal break during my shift. However, I had to stay late several days last week to do inventory. I am going to get paid overtime, but I didn't get to take a dinner break. I was working 12 or 13 hours a day, which means I was going home many hours after my lunch break. Our boss won't let us eat on the floor, so I was really hungry. Do I get to take another break to eat if I work more than eight hours, or is the overtime pay supposed to cover that?
Answer: Believe it or not, federal law doesn't give you a right to any breaks during the work day. No lunch, no coffee break, and no walk around the block to clear your head. If your employer lets you take short breaks (generally, shorter than 20 minutes or so), your employer has to pay you for that time. But federal law doesn't require employers to give these breaks in the first place.
Many state laws do, however. Some states require employers to provide rest breaks during the day. Some states require employers to allow employees to take time off to eat a meal, if their shift lasts longer than a certain period (five hours is typical). Your state requires both: California employees are entitled to a paid ten minute break for every four hours that they work. They are also entitled to a 30-minute, unpaid meal break.
But what of employees who have to pull a longer shift, you ask? California has them covered, too. If you have to work more than ten hours, you are entitled to a second 30-minute, unpaid meal break. If you will be working fewer than 12 hours total, you may waive this second meal break. However, your decision must be voluntary: Your employer cannot require or pressure you to skip your second meal break. And, you may not waive the second meal break, even voluntarily, if you didn't take your first meal break.
In some industries and job positions, it's difficult for employees to take a break from all duties. For example, maybe someone needs to stay at the front desk to sign for a package or answer phones. In this limited situation, an employer may require you to eat on the job, rather than taking a break. However, you must be paid for this time.
It sounds like your job doesn't prevent you from taking a break; after all, you take a lunch break every day. In that case, your employer should have allowed you to take this time off. The legal penalty for denying an employee a meal break in California is one hour of pay for every missed break. Because you are looking at only a few hours in damages, you can be fairly certain that it will be tough to find a lawyer to represent you. But there's no harm in asking your employer to pay you for those missed breaks. If your employer refuses, you might consider filing a wage claim with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.