Breaks during the school day can be vital for teachers as well as students. But in California, showing up to work and putting in long hours in a classroom does not entitle a teacher to a meal break or even a shorter rest period. Although state labor laws include break provisions, those laws do not cover all employees. For some groups of employees, the employer gets to decide whether to make breaks available.
California is among a small group of states with labor laws providing for both a meal break and paid rest periods during the workday. The laws provide for a 30-minute meal break that must involve no work during workdays of at least five hours and 10-minute paid rest periods during each four-hour segment of work. But these laws do not apply to certain "exempt'' employees, including most teachers.
Employers do not have to apply certain California labor laws, including those relating to overtime pay and break periods, to employees who qualify as exempt. These employees work in administrative, executive or professional jobs based on criteria in federal and state regulations. The state lists teaching as an exempt occupation under the "professional" category as long as the teacher is full time and makes at least twice the minimum wage. As of 2011, the minimum wage was $8 an hour, so any full-time teacher making at least $16 an hour has no legal right to break time.
Because the state regulation about exemptions specifies full-time employees, part-time or substitute teachers have rights under break laws. But because meal break laws apply only to employees who work shifts of at least five hours, substitute teachers might not have a guaranteed right to a meal period. Nonexempt employees who work no more than six hours can choose to waive their right to a meal time. If they work more than two hours during any four-hour segment, the school must allow them to take a 10-minute rest period while remaining on the clock for pay purposes.
Teachers might be members of labor unions that negotiate conditions of employment with school districts. Union agreements might specify, for example, that teachers in the district cannot teach more than a certain number of periods in a row without receiving a break of a minimum length.