Meal and Rest Breaks: Your Rights as an Employee

An employee's right to take meal and rest breaks depends on state law.

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Many employers provide employees with a rest or lunch break, whether paid or unpaid. This common practice is not required everywhere, however: The federal wage and hour law, called the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), doesn't require employers to provide meal or rest breaks. Some states have stepped into the breach to require such breaks, but others have not.

If you get meal or rest breaks, your employer doesn't have to pay you for that time unless:

  • your state's law requires paid rest breaks (see "State Laws on Rest Breaks," below)
  • you have to work through your break, or
  • your break lasts 20 minutes or less; generally, these shorter breaks are considered part of your work day and must be paid.

State Laws on Meal Breaks

Fewer than half the states require employers to provide a meal break. In those states that require meal breaks, employees who work more than five or six hours at a time typically must be allowed to take a half hour to eat. Some states prohibit employers from giving this time off near the beginning or end of the work shift. You can find a list of state meal break laws at the Department of Labor's website at www.dol.gov/whd/state/meal.htm.

You aren't entitled to be paid for this time off if you don't have to work while eating. If you do have to work while eating -- for example, by answering phones or waiting for a delivery while eating lunch -- then you have the right to be paid for that time.

State Laws on Rest Breaks

Only a handful of states -- California, Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington -- currently require employers to allow employees to take rest breaks. With the exception of Minnesota and Vermont, which simply requires employers to give employees enough break time to use the restroom, these laws generally provide that employees can take a ten-minute rest break, with pay, for every four hours they work. A few other states allow employers to choose between giving a meal break or rest breaks.

You can find a list of state rest break laws at the Department of Labor's website at www.dol.gov/whd/state/rest.htm.

Different Rules Apply to Younger Workers

A number of states require employers to allow younger workers to take meal or rest breaks. In states that already require breaks for adult workers, the rules for minors are sometimes stricter. For example, Delaware requires employers to provide a 30-minute meal break to employees who work at least seven and a half hours; minors are entitled to a 30-minute break once they work five hours.

Some states have special break rules for all minors (employees who are not yet 18 years old); others have passed special break rules only for minors who are 15 or younger. For information on your state's break rules for younger workers, contact your state labor department.

What to Do If You Aren't Getting Your Breaks

If you aren't allowed to take legally required breaks, or you're required to work through your breaks without getting paid, contact your state labor department.

To learn more about meal and rest break rules, and other laws that protect you in the workplace, get Your Rights in the Workplace, by Barbara Kate Repa (Nolo).

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