Meal and Rest Breaks for Illinois Employees

Illinois employees are entitled to unpaid meal breaks.

By , J.D.

Does your Illinois employer give you time off for lunch? 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. Illinois requires most employers to provide meal breaks. Hotel room attendants in Illinois are also entitled to paid rest breaks.

Federal Law: Paid vs. Unpaid Breaks

Under federal law, employers must pay employees 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.

Illinois Law Requires Meal Breaks

Illinois employers must provide a meal break to employees who work at least seven and a half continuous hours. This break must be at least 20 minutes long, and it must start no later than five hours after the beginning of the shift. These are unpaid breaks; employers are not required to pay employees for this time unless employees have to work through their breaks.

Hotel room attendants in Illinois – those who clean guest rooms or put them in order – are entitled to a longer meal break. These employees must get a 30-minute meal break if they work at least seven hours.

Illinois Law Requires Rest Breaks Only for Hotel Room Attendants

Hotel room attendants get an additional benefit: They are the only employees who are also entitled to rest breaks. These employees must be provided two paid rest breaks, 15 minutes each, if they work at least seven hours. These breaks are in addition to the meal break described above. Attendants must be provided a break area, with seating. They may not be required to work during their breaks.

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