Meal and Rest Breaks in Tennessee

Tennessee employers must provide a meal break.

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Does your Tennessee 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 Tennessee, all but the smallest employers must provide meal breaks.

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.

Tennessee Law Requires Meal Breaks

A number of states follow the federal law: They don’t require meal or rest breaks, but they require employers to pay for any short breaks allowed (and to pay for all time an employee spends working, whether or not the employee is eating at the same time).

Tennessee law requires employers to provide a meal break, but no rest breaks. In Tennessee, employers must provide a 30-minute break to employees who are scheduled to work at least six consecutive hours. This break may be unpaid.

Employers who have at least five employees are covered by this law. However, employers don’t have to provide a meal break if the employee’s work allows ample time for breaks throughout the workday.

Employees who work in food or beverage service (such as wait staff and bartenders) and receive tips may waive their right to a meal break. Employers may not coerce employees into waiving this right. However, if an employee asks to waive the meal break, knowingly and voluntarily, in writing, and the employer consents to the request, it may be waived. Employers must post a written waiver policy in order to utilize this exception. The policy must include a waiver form, letting employees know that they have a right to a break unless they waive it. The policy must also state how long the waiver will last, and how the employee or employer may rescind the waiver. 

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