Although some employers in the District of Columbia provide meal or rest breaks, you might 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. Employees must be paid for shorter breaks they are allowed to take during the day, but employers are not required to provide these breaks in the first place.
Of course, many employers provide these breaks as a matter of custom and policy, 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.
In some states, workers have more protections. A number of states require employers to provide meal breaks, rest breaks or both. However, the District of Columbia doesn't follow this trend. Employers in the District don't have to provide either rest or meal breaks.
Under federal law, employers must 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.
Some states require employers to provide a meal break, rest breaks, or both. The District of Columbia hasn't followed suit, however. Employers in the District must follow the federal rules explained above. In other words, although breaks are not required, employers must pay employees for time they spend working and for shorter breaks during the day. An employer that chooses to provide a longer meal break, during which the employee is relieved of all job duties, does not have to pay the employee for that time.