When Must Employers Provide Meal and Rest Breaks?

Federal law doesn't require employers to offer breaks, but some state laws do.

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Most employers allow employees to take a lunch break, and perhaps also short rest breaks during the day. Although allowing breaks is a common practice, it isn’t required everywhere. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which sets the national standard for wage and hour laws, doesn't require employers to give employees time off during their work days. Some states require employers to provide meal breaks, rest breaks, or both; some don’t.

Federal Law: Breaks Aren’t Required

The FLSA does not require employers to give employees breaks of any kind during the workday. However, it does require employers to pay employees for all hours worked, even if the employer designates some of that time as a “break.” If, for example, the employer closes the office for lunch from noon until 1 p.m., but requires one employee to eat lunch at her desk and answer phones, that employee must be paid for her time. The same is true of a salesperson who eats while driving from one customer to the next, or a bookkeeper who works through lunch. Employees must be paid for the time they spend working, even if they are also eating, and even if the employer calls this time a “lunch break.”

In contrast, employers do not have to pay for true meal breaks, during which the employee is relieved of all duties for the purpose of eating. Your company doesn’t have to allow employees to leave the workplace during a meal break, as long as they don’t have to do any work. Your company does not have to pay employees for meal breaks as long as they are at least 30 minutes long and the employee isn’t required to work during the break. (In some circumstances, a shorter break may also qualify as unpaid time.)

Under the FLSA, employers also have to pay for short breaks they allow employees to take during the day, often referred to as rest breaks. Breaks lasting from five to 20 minutes are considered work time, for which employees must be paid.

However, employers aren’t required to offer either type of break, for meals or rest. These rules require only that employers who choose to offer breaks pay employees for their break time, in some situations.

Some States Require Meal Breaks

Fewer than half the states require employers to provide a meal break. In these states, employees who work more than five or six consecutive hours typically must be allowed to take half an hour off to eat. Some states regulate the timing of a meal break during an employee’s shift; typically, employees may not be required to take meal breaks at the start or end of the workday.

No states require employers to provide paid meal breaks. However, employers must pay employees who have to do any work during their meal break.

To find out the requirements in states where your company does business, select the state from the list at State Laws on Meal and Rest Breaks.

Some States Require Paid Rest Breaks

In a small number of states -- California, Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington – employers must allow employees to take rest breaks. Minnesota and Vermont require only that employers give employees enough break time to use the restroom. The other states generally require employers to give employees a ten-minute rest break, paid, for every four hours worked. A few states allow employers to choose between giving a meal break or rest breaks.

To find out the requirements in states where your company does business, select the state from the list at State Laws on Meal and Rest Breaks.

Special Rules Apply to Younger Workers

Some states require employers to give meal or rest breaks to younger workers. In states that already require breaks for adult workers, the rules for minors may be stricter. In Delaware, for example, employers must 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 break rules only for minors who are 15 or younger. For information on the break rules for younger workers in states where your company does business, contact the state labor department.

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