Does your Massachusetts employer give you meal breaks or rest breaks? You might be 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. In Massachusetts, most employers have to allow employees to take meal breaks. Employees are not entitled to rest breaks, however.
Federal Law: Paid versus Unpaid Breaks
Under federal law, employers must 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.
Massachusetts Law: Meal Breaks Required
Most Massachusetts employers must allow employees to take a 30-minute meal break, if they will work for more than six hours. This time is unpaid, unless the employer chooses to pay employees for breaks.
Some businesses aren’t covered by this rule. Iron and glass works, paper mills, print works, and bleaching and dye works do not have to comply with the law, for example. In addition, the state attorney general may grant an exemption for a business that requires continuous operation, if the exemption won’t compromise worker safety.
Massachusetts law does not require employers to provide rest breaks, paid or unpaid.