Can my manager make me take my lunch and breaks all at the same time?

Question:

I work at a retail chain store. We get half an hour off (unpaid) for lunch, plus two ten-minute paid breaks, for each regular work shift. We used to get these breaks separately. Lunch was somewhere in the middle of the shift, one break was in the middle of the morning, and the other break was in the middle of the afternoon. However, the new manager wants us to take all of our time off at once. We get a 50-minute break at some point during the day, and that's it. We still get paid for 20 minutes of it, so the money works out the same. But I'm wondering if it's legal to make us combine all of our time off like this. I prefer separate breaks, so I can check on my kids, clear my head, and so on.

Answer:

Whether or not employees are entitled to breaks during the workday -- and the length and timing of those breaks -- is determined by state law. Although federal laws require employers to pay employees for all time they spend working, as well any brief breaks the employer chooses to allow during the day, those laws don't require employers to give any breaks in the first place. So, any rights you might have will come from state law.

States approach the question of meal and rest breaks differently. A number of states follow the federal government's lead and have not passed any laws in this area at all. If you work in one of these states, your employer can choose to give you meal or rest breaks or not. And, if the employer chooses to give meal or rest breaks, it must pay for only short breaks which are less than 20 minutes.

Some states, however, require employers to give a meal break and/or rest breaks. Generally, an employer doesn't have to pay employees for their meal breaks if they aren't performing any work during that time. Some states that require rest breaks also require employers to pay employees for that time.

Of the states that require meal breaks, many suggest that an employee's meal break should be close to the middle of the shift, if possible. However, this is generally not required. Similarly, states that require rest breaks often state that they "should" be provided near the middle of the stretch in which they are required (typically, four-hour work windows). Again, however, this is typically a suggestion rather than a requirement.

However, some states do get more specific as to when breaks must take place and whether they can be combined. In Oregon, for example, state law requires employers to offer separate meal and rest breaks. Employees cannot be required to take them all at once (as yours has) or to forego any breaks in order to shorten the work day. If your state law is like this, your manager's policy change may not be legal. To find out what your state requires, select it from the list at Nolo's State Laws on Meal and Rest Breaks page.

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