Wisconsin Laws on Meal and Rest Breaks

Wisconsin recommends -- but does not require -- meal breaks.

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Does your Wisconsin 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, rest breaks or both. Wisconsin takes a different approach: Wisconsin employers aren’t required to provide either type of break, but meal breaks are “recommended.”

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.

Wisconsin Recommends 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).

Some states require a meal break or rest breaks. Wisconsin doesn’t require either type of break, but recommends that employers provide a meal break. The state recommends (but does not require) that employers provide a 30-minute meal break, close to the usual meal time or near the middle of the shift. Shifts of more than six hours without a meal break should be avoided.

If an employee must eat while working or is not free to leave the workplace during a meal break, the meal period must be paid.

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