Meal and Rest Breaks From Work Laws

Workers in a cafeteria eating
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Are you entitled to a lunch break or to get paid for time taken to eat a meal? Federal law does not require rest or coffee breaks for employees. Lunch, dinner, or other meal periods (typically lasting at least 30 minutes) are not considered work time and employees are not entitled to be paid for their meal break.

However, some states have laws that provide for breaks. These laws vary based on location, classification of workers and the age of the employee. The U.S. Department of Labor maintains a list of state laws requiring meal breaks for employees.

In addition, many companies voluntarily provide breaks to maintain morale and productivity.

How Many Breaks Do Employees Get During a Workday?

There are no federal regulations that determine a set number of breaks per number of hours worked. Some states have employment laws which determine how many breaks from work an employee is entitled to during a shift.

For example, in Minnesota, time to use the nearest restroom must be provided within every four consecutive hours of work. California provides a paid 10-minute rest period for every four hours worked. Vermont doesn't specify the length of time of the break, but says "Employees are to be given 'reasonable opportunities' during work periods to eat and use toilet facilities."

Pay for Breaks from Work

Although it might be required that employees have a break, employers are generally not required to pay for it. When employers provide short breaks from work (usually lasting about 5 to 20 minutes), federal law considers the breaks as work hours you should be paid for.

If an employee works through lunch, they are still legally entitled to compensation for their time. Employers must pay you if your state requires paid lunch breaks or if you had to work through what should have been a break.

This time should be included in the sum of your hours worked during the workweek and considered in determining if overtime was worked. Employees that are not allowed to take breaks or are forced to work through their lunch hour without compensation should contact their state labor department to submit a claim against their employer.

Meal Breaks and Federal Law

  • Federal Laws: The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require employers to provide meal or extended rest breaks.

Meal Breaks and State Law

  • State Laws: Less than half of U.S. states require companies to provide a meal or rest break. In many of these states, workers who work over 6 hours at once must be allowed 30 minutes to eat or rest. To avoid fraud, many states also enforce that this time is taken in the middle of the shift and not at the beginning or end, to protect employees from losing their break.

Certain states cover paid rest breaks from work, including bathroom breaks. Regulations vary.

Of the states that do have break laws, some have employment laws which cover all employees; others cover specific industries and classifications of workers. Maryland, for example, has a "Shift Break Law" that covers some retail workers. Paid rest breaks are currently required by state law in several states, including California, Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Vermont, and Washington.

States that regulate meal breaks typically provide for 1/2 hour after every 5 or 6 hours worked.

Breaks for Nursing Mothers

The Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child's birth.

Company Policy

When breaks aren't stipulated by law, employers may have company policies in place that provide for a certain amount of break time per work shift. Union collective bargaining agreements may also provide for breaks from work.

For example, an employee could be given a 30-minute lunch break (unpaid) and two 15-minute breaks (paid) during each eight-hour shift. Or, as another example, an employee could have a 20-minute break in the morning and an hour for lunch.

For a six-hour shift, an employee could receive two 10-minute breaks or a 20-minute lunch break. Another option is giving an employee a break after a certain number of hours of work. For example, an employee might receive a 15-minute break after every 3 hours of work.

When company policy determines break periods, the amount and duration of breaks are set by the employer.

If you are concerned that you're not receiving the correct amount of break time, check with your state department of labor for information on break time regulations.

The Bottom Line

FEDERAL LAW DOES NOT REQUIRE EMPLOYERS TO OFFER BREAKS: Meal and rest breaks are not mandated under the Federal Labor Standards Act.

HOWEVER, MANY STATE LAWS DO MANDATE BREAKS: Check with your state department of labor for more information.

IN ADDITION, EMPLOYERS OFTEN OFFER BREAKS ANYWAY: To attract talent and maintain productivity and morale, many employers offer breaks.