Many employers provide employees with a rest or lunch break, whether paid or unpaid. This common practice is not required everywhere, however: The federal wage and hour law, called the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), doesn't require employers to provide meal or rest breaks.
Some states have stepped into the breach to require such breaks, but others have not.
If you get meal or rest breaks, your employer doesn't have to pay you for that time unless:
Fewer than half the states require employers to provide a meal break. In those states that require meal breaks, employees who work more than five or six hours at a time typically must be allowed to take a half hour to eat.
Some states prohibit employers from giving this time off near the beginning or end of the work shift. You can find a list of state meal break laws at the Department of Labor's website.
You aren't entitled to be paid for this time off if you are completely relieved of all work duties. If you do have to work while eating—for example, by answering phones or waiting for a delivery—then you have the right to be paid for that time.
Only a handful of states currently require employers to allow employees to take rest breaks throughout the work day. Most of these states provide that employees can take a ten-minute rest break, with pay, for every four hours worked.
A few states allow employers to choose between giving a meal break or rest breaks, or require only that employers provide employees with enough break time to use the restroom.
You can find a list of state rest break laws at the Department of Labor's website.
A number of states require employers to allow younger workers to take meal or rest breaks. In states that require breaks for adult workers, the rules for minors are sometimes stricter. For example, Delaware requires employers to provide a 30-minute meal break to employees who work at least seven and a half hours; minors are entitled to a 30-minute break once they work five hours.
Some states have special break rules for all minors (employees who are not yet 18 years old), while others have special break rules only for minors who are 15 or younger. For information on your state's break rules for younger workers, contact your state labor department.
Meal and rest break laws only apply to "non-exempt employees." That generally means employees who are paid hourly or earn less than $684 per week ($35,568 per year).
Employees who are "exempt" from the Fair Labor Standards Act because they receive a salary and exceed the earnings threshold above typically are not entitled to a meal or rest break under state or federal law.
Learn more about the difference between exempt and non-exempt employees.
If you aren't allowed to take legally required breaks, or you're required to work through your breaks without getting paid, contact your state labor department.
Also consider contacting an experienced employment attorney who can help you get the breaks you're required and potentially recover any back pay that you're owed.
To learn more about meal and rest break rules, and other laws that protect you in the workplace, get Your Rights in the Workplace, by Barbara Kate Repa (Nolo).