Many people are surprised to learn that federal law doesn’t give employees the right to time off to eat lunch (or another meal) or the right to take short breaks during the work day. Although employees must be paid for shorter breaks they are allowed to take during the day, employers are not required to provide these breaks in the first place. Plenty of employers provide these breaks as a matter of custom and policy, perhaps recognizing that an employee who is hungry and tired is neither productive nor pleasant to customers and coworkers. Sensible as this seems, employers are not legally required to allow breaks, at least by federal law.
State law is a different story, however. A number of states require employers to provide meal breaks or rest breaks. Colorado is one of the handful of states that requires both.
Federal Law: Paid vs. Unpaid Breaks
Federal law requires employers to pay for hours worked, including certain time that an employer may designate as “breaks.” For example, if an employee has to work through a meal, that time must be paid. A receptionist who must cover the phones or wait for deliveries during lunch must be paid for that time, as must a paralegal who eats lunch at her desk while working or a repair person who grabs a quick bite while driving from one job to the next. Even if an employer refers to this time as a lunch break, the employee is still working and entitled to be paid.
Federal law also requires employers to pay for short breaks an employee is allowed to take during the day. Breaks lasting from five to 20 minutes are considered part of the workday, for which employees must be paid.
Employers do not have to pay for bona fide meal breaks, during which the employee is relieved of all duties for the purpose of eating a meal. An employee need not be allowed to leave the work site during a meal break, as long as the employee doesn’t have to do any work. Ordinarily, a meal break is “bona fide” if it lasts for at least 30 minutes, although shorter breaks may also qualify, depending on the circumstances.
However, these rules come into play only if an employer allows breaks. Federal law requires only that an employer pay for certain time, even if it is designated as a break. It does not require employers to offer break time in the first place.
Colorado Law Requires Meal and Rest Breaks
Colorado is one of the few states that not only requires employers to provide breaks, but also requires that employees be paid for some of this time. Colorado requires employers to offer both a meal break and paid rest breaks.
Under Colorado law, certain employers must give employees a 30-minute meal break once the employee has worked five hours. An employer does not have to pay for this time; in other words, meal breaks are unpaid. Covered employers include those in retail and service, food and beverage, commercial support service, dry cleaning and housekeeping, and health and medical industries. Some professions are specifically excluded from this requirement, including teachers and nurses.
If the nature of the job prevents employees from taking a break from all duties, employers may provide an on-duty meal period. However, this time must be paid.
Colorado also requires employers to provide rest breaks. (Covered employers are the same as for meal breaks.) Employers must allow employees to take a paid ten-minute rest break for every four hours (or major fraction) worked. If practical, these breaks must be provided in the middle of the work period.