Can my employer require me to take my "lunch" break right after I get to work?

Question:

I work at a coffee shop, which is part of a statewide chain. My shift is 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The store has a big morning rush from the time we open, at 6:30 a.m., until about 8:30 a.m. Then things quiet down until folks start coming in for their morning coffee break from work, at around 10 a.m. My manager has scheduled my "lunch" break for 9 a.m., only an hour after I arrive in the morning. Then I have to work the rest of the day without a significant break. Even though I can take a few minutes to eat a sandwich in the back at noon, I would much rather eat my lunch during a lunch break that happens in the middle of my shift! Is it legal to schedule my lunch for an hour after I get to work?

Answer:

Like you, most employees value their breaks highly. It might surprise you, therefore, to learn that federal law doesn't require your employer to give you any breaks at all. None, zero, zip. As long as you are paid for all of the time you spend working, your employer is meeting its obligations under federal law.

State law may be a different story, however. About half of the states don't require breaks at all. As under federal law, employers in these states do not have to provide meal breaks or rest breaks. If an employer in these states chooses to let employees take breaks, they do have to follow some guidelines. For example, employers must pay employees for breaks that are fairly short (less than 20 minutes or so), and they must pay employees who have to work through their breaks. However, employer are not required to allow employees to take any breaks at all.

On the other hand, about half of the states have some requirements about providing meal and rest breaks. Some states leave the timing of breaks entirely up to the employer. Your employer's practice of scheduling your "lunch" an hour after your start time would therefore be entirely legal in those states. Other states impose requirements on when the breaks must be scheduled. In Delaware, for example, an employee is entitled to a 30-minute unpaid meal break, which must be scheduled after the first two hours of work, but before the last two hours of work. Still other states require employers to provide a meal break no more than five hours into the employee's shift (although this particular rule wouldn't help you avoid the 10 a.m. lunch break).

Wisconsin takes a more relaxed approach. In Wisconsin, the state recommends -- but does not require -- that employers provide a meal break near the middle of an employee's shift or close to the normal meal time. Because this is not a legal requirement, however, employees would have a tough time enforcing the scheduling rule.

As you can see, the rules vary significantly from state to state. To find out what your state requires, select it from the list at State Laws on Meal and Rest Breaks.

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