Does your Washington 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. Washington is one of the handful of states that requires both.
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.
Washington Requires Meal and Rest 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).
Some states require a meal break or rest breaks; Washington is one of the few states that requires employers to provide both types of breaks.
In Washington, employees who will work more than five consecutive hours are entitled to a 30-minute meal break, not less than two hours nor more than five hours from the beginning of their shifts. This time must be paid if the employee is on duty or is required to be at a site for the employer’s benefit. Otherwise, the break may be unpaid.
Employees who work three or more hours longer than their regular workday are entitled to an additional 30-minute break, before or during their overtime.
Slightly different rules apply to agricultural employees. These employees are entitled to a 30-minute meal break if working more than five hours, and an additional 30-minute break if working 11 or more hours in one day.
In addition to meal breaks, Washington employees are entitled to paid rest breaks. Employees must be allowed a paid ten-minute rest break for each four-hour work period, scheduled as near to the midpoint of the work period as possible. Employees cannot be required to work more than three hours without a rest break.
Scheduled rest breaks are not required if the nature of the work allows employees to take intermittent rest breaks equivalent to the required standard.