Employees may appreciate a break during their shift, but how much time must employers legally give them? And do they have to pay for it?
The federal wage and hour law, called the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), does not generally require employers to provide any meal break or short rest break to their workers. There is an exception for nursing mothers in some cases, and employers must allow these individuals to take a break to express milk any time that 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.
In terms of paying employees for break time, generally the FLSA does not require employers to pay for meal breaks, but rest breaks of 5 to 20 minutes are generally considered hours worked and thus must be compensated.
Compensation for breaks is especially important for employees classified as nonexempt — those employees who qualify for overtime pay and are often paid hourly. If a nonexempt employee decides to skip a meal break, for example, they must be paid for the time they worked (though they could be disciplined in other ways by the employer if taking, say, a 30-minute meal break is required.) Exempt employees — who typically receive the same pay every pay period regardless of how much they work — generally cannot have their pay docked for any breaks they take.
Keep in mind that slightly less than half of all states have their own break requirements that employers in those states must follow. Each state's rules differ and some rules apply only to certain industries or types of workers or facilities.
Who Gets a Meal Break?
Twenty-one U.S. states, including California, New York, and Massachusetts, require employers to give their workers 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. In 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.
Who Gets a Rest Break?
Only nine U.S. states require employers to give their employees shorter "rest periods" on top of meal breaks. Colorado, for example, requires employers in many industries to give their workers a paid 10-minute break for every four hours worked. Vermont's rules are more flexible: the state requires employers to offer "reasonable opportunities" for employees to eat and use the restroom during their shifts, but does not require breaks be a certain amount of time. Nevada requires that employers with two or more employees must give those employees a paid 10-minute rest period for every four hours worked and preferably in the middle of that four-hour period.
Despite the lack of break time rules in most states, surveys suggest that most employees do still get breaks. A 2014 survey by Office Team, a Robert Half Company, found that less than 10 percent of office workers say they don't get a lunch break. Thirty-seven percent said their lunch break was 10 to 30 minutes, while 38 percent said their break was an hour or longer.
While federal wage and hour laws do not generally mandate employee breaks, and state laws vary, most employers recognize the need and the importance of allowing employees to take a designated break time. As an employer it's important that you learn, and abide by, the break time guidelines that govern your worksite locations.