You may 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. Connecticut requires employer to give employees a meal break or rest breaks.
Federal law requires employers to 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.
Connecticut requires employers to provide either a meal break or rest breaks of the same duration. If the employer offers rest breaks, they must be paid.
Under Connecticut law, employers must give a 30-minute meal break to employees who work at least seven and a half consecutive hours. An employer does not have to pay for this time; in other words, meal breaks are unpaid. The break must be provided after the employee’s first two hours of work and before the employee’s last two hours of work.
Employers do not have to offer a meal break if they offer paid rest breaks, as explained below.
Instead of providing a lunch break, Connecticut employers may offer a total of 30 minutes of break time per each seven and a half hour work period. This time must be paid.
This is not an independent requirement. In other words, employers do not have to provide rest breaks, paid or otherwise. If they choose to offer at least 30 minutes of paid breaks, however, they can get out of the meal break requirement.