What is meal penalty? Well, meal penalty is something cast/crew are sometimes subject to – and it’s certainly something producers don’t want to incur. Meal penalty is the disincentive that keeps producers from overworking their employees – but it’s also something more than that. We’re going to break down meal penalties at the union, state, and federal level. By the end, you’ll know everything there is to know about meal penalties on film sets.

meal penalty explained

What is meal penalty California law?

Meal penalty is an important facet of California labor law. In fact, it’s one of the most protective statutes for California workers. “Meal penalty California” is just one type of penalty.

So, before we get too deep into it, let’s formally define these penalties.


What is meal penalty?

A meal penalty is a financial penalty producers incur for eating into their workers’ meal time. A meal penalty, otherwise known as a lunch penalty, is enforced by unions and state governments. In California, workers are protected under the California Meal Break and Rest Law, guaranteeing them rates of pay depending on how much meal time is taken away.

Meal Penalty on Film Sets

  • California Meal Break and Rest Law
  • SAG-AFTRA Union Meal Break Agreement
  • No Federal Penalties

For a quick breakdown of the CA lunch penalty law, check out this next video.

Meal Penalty Rules  •  Taking Meal and Rest Breaks in California by Kyle Todd

With the basics now covered, let's dive into some of the details. We'll look at some FAQs, how much these penalties cost and tips on how to avoid them.


California Meal Break & Rest Law

The California Chamber of Commerce states that “You may not require an employee to work for a period of more than five hours per day without providing him/her with a 30-minute unpaid meal break. You owe the employee one hour of pay if the employee is unable to take one or more meal breaks.”

Penalty FAQ — All answers taken from the California Chamber of Commerce.

How long are employee rest breaks?

  • “You must also give nonexempt employees an opportunity to take a 10-minute paid rest break for every four hours worked, or major fraction thereof. You owe the employee one hour of pay if the employee is unable to take one or more rest breaks.”

What is the maximum penalty?/How to calculate meal penalties

  • “The maximum penalty for missed meal breaks and missed rest breaks is two hours of pay per day, no matter how many meal or rest breaks were missed in the day."

When must employees be compensated for missed meal/rest time?

  • “The additional pay for missed meal or rest breaks must be included in the employee's next paycheck.”

Can employers require employees to work during recovery periods?

  • “An employer cannot require an employee to work during any “recovery period” taken to avoid heat-related illness. Rest and recovery periods are paid breaks and count as hours worked.”

Can employers cut meal time/rest time short?

  • “An employee who is not provided with the full 30-minutes for a meal break, or the full-10 minutes for a rest break, is entitled to the penalty as well.”

This next video from employment lawyer Branigan Robertson breaks down the California Meal Break Law in further detail. Just be mindful that it’s from 2017 and legislation is subject to change.

Meal Break Penalty California Law Explained by Employment Lawyer Branigan Robertson

The California Meal Break Law is important to know, especially for film professionals considering the prevalence of meal penalties in Hollywood.

What is Meal Penalty for SAG-AFTRA Members?

Union meal penalty calculator

The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) has a penalty that protects union members.

Here’s how it works (meal period provisions are the same for all performers):

  • “The performer must be given the first meal break within six hours from the time of first call. The second meal break must be called within six hours from the time of call back from the first meal break. Each meal break must be no less than thirty minutes, but the Producer can deduct actual time up to one hour spent at meals.”
  • “The performer may be given a non-deductible meal of 15 minutes free from all activity within two hours of the performer’s call time. A notation indicating the start and finish time of the non-deductible meal must be on the production time report.”
  • “The first meal break would then be due six hours from the end of the non-deductible meal.”

SAG-AFTRA meal penalties are incurred on a scale; specifically as follows:

  1. For the first half-hour, or fraction thereof: $25 
  2. For the second half-hour, or fraction thereof: $35 
  3. For each half-hour thereafter, or fraction thereof: $50 

Meal penalty calculator note: For Student, Short, and Ultra Low Budget Films, the meal penalty amount is reduced to $25/half-hour or fraction thereof. 

What is Meal Penalty to the Federal Government?

Federal penalty details

In a day and age where corporations are incurring hefty wage-theft violations, i.e., Green Messengers Inc. and Amazon.com Services LLC fined $6.4 million for wage theft violations affecting 718 workers (via the California Department of Industrial Relations), unions are working hard to address meal/rest penalties.

Still, The Department of Labor says, “Federal law does not require lunch or coffee breaks. However, when employers do offer short breaks (usually lasting about 5 to 20 minutes), federal law considers the breaks as compensable work hours that would be included in the sum of hours worked during the workweek and considered in determining if overtime was worked.” It also says meal breaks (typically lasting more than 30 minutes) are not compensable.

Up Next

Popular Craft Services in Los Angeles

If you’re a producer who’s adamant about not incurring a penalty, then you’re probably on the lookout for awesome craft services. Well, scour for crafty no more – check out our article on popular craft services in Los Angeles. By the end, you’ll know what qualifies as a great LA craft service!

Up Next: LA Craft Services Companies →
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  • Chris Heckmann is a Professor of Media & Communication at Roger Williams University and graduate of UCLA’s Cinema & Media Studies Master of Arts program. When he’s not writing or teaching, he’s probably playing video games (or thinking about the next great Boston sports trade).

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