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Employee Entitlement to Breaks at Work

employee considering taking a break at work

How much break time must employers legally provide to employees? And do they have to pay employees for breaks?

There is no "one-size-fits-all" answer to these questions, because federal and state laws related to breaks for employees may differ to some extent. In this article, we will look at some of these key differences, including employer obligations to provide breaks to employees under federal law, examples of state break time laws , and types of employee breaks (meal breaks vs. rest breaks). Understanding and complying with laws related to employee entitlement to breaks is essential for employers.

Federal break time laws

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is a federal law that generally does not require an employer to provide meal periods or rest periods for their employees. Many employers do, however, provide breaks and/or meal periods. According to the U.S. Department of Labor when employers 

do permit breaks in short duration, from 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."

Bona fide meal periods are not worktime under the FLSA; but the employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purposes of eating regular meals. Typically, 30 minutes or more is long enough to qualify as a bona fide meal period. However, a shorter period may be long enough under special conditions.  

As a general rule, rest breaks are considered hours worked and bona fide meal periods are not considered hours worked.

In some cases, there is an exception for nursing mothers, and employers must allow these individuals to take a break any time that a mother has the need to express milk up until the child's first birthday. This break time is generally unpaid, unless the employer provides compensated breaks and the employee uses that break time to express milk.

Compensation for employee breaks

 Under the law, employees are classified as either exempt or non-exempt from some or all of the provisions of the FLSA. Non-exempt employees must be paid at least minimum wage for all hours worked up to 40 in a workweek and the applicable overtime rate for hours worked over 40 in a workweek. While the FLSA does not require employers to provide rest or meal breaks, if they do employers must pay non-exempt employees for any time classified as “hours worked.”  As described above, rest periods are generally classified as “hours worked,” whereas meal periods – provided the employee is relieved of work duties – are generally not classified as hours worked.

Compensation for breaks is especially important for employees classified as non-exempt— those employees who qualify for overtime pay and are often paid on an hourly basis. If a non-exempt employee works through a meal break, for example, they must be paid for the time they worked.  Employers may wish to have a policy requiring employees to take an unpaid meal period under certain conditions and implement discipline if the policy is not followed. 

Under the FLSA exempt employees — who typically receive the same pay every pay period regardless of how much they work — generally cannot have their pay docked for break or meal periods..

Break time laws by state

In addition to complying with the federal FLSA, employers must also review whether they have any obligations under current state or local laws.  Several states have laws that address employee entitlement to break or meal periods. Each state's rules differ and some rules apply only to certain industries or types of workers or facilities.

State rest period requirements

The Department of Labor has published a webpage detailing the minimum length of meal period required under state law for adult employees in the private sector .  Examples of states that require rest periods include:

  • California - all employees who work more than five hours a day are permitted at least 30 minutes of break time.
  • Connecticut - employees who work at least 7.5 hours a day are permitted a break period of 30 minutes
  • Maine - 30-minute breaks are required for employees working more than 6 hours a day.
  • Maryland-retail establishment employees who work a consecutive four- to six-hour shift must receive a minimum 15-minute meal break, while employees who work more than six hours must receive a 30-minute break.

Each state law is unique with respect to the obligations it imposes on employers related to rest periods.  Further, these laws are subject to change.  As such, employers should periodically review their obligations to confirm they are complying with the current applicable laws.

State meal period requirements

The Department of Labor has published a webpage detailing the minimum rest period requirements under state law for adult employees in the private sector. A number of states , including California, New York, and Massachusetts, require employers to give their employees a meal break. In California, for example, a half-hour meal break must be given after five hours of an employee's shift, unless that employee's shift is completed in six hours or less. That break generally must be counted in an employee's work time, except under certain circumstances.

As an employer, it's important that you understand and comply with  any meal or break time laws that apply to your employees.   Consider implementing or upgrading your time and attendance system to help you track employee time and breaks more accurately and efficiently.

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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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