It’s “What’s Up? Wednesday”. Time to talk about MEAL BREAKS…

You asked: “What is the law regarding meal breaks? We have many employees that are not taking meal breaks and writing ‘no lunch’ on their time sheets. Can we require them to take a break?”

Laura answers: Though federal law does not require employers to provide rest breaks or meal breaks, some states do have statutes that address meal breaks.

Federal law: According to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a rest break fewer than 20 minutes must be considered work time and must be compensated. In addition, time spent in such breaks is included as regular work time when calculating over time. Bona fide meal breaks are different. These are usually 30 minutes or more. These breaks are NOT compensable ONLY if the employee is completely relieved of all work duties (i.e., no monitoring phones or equipment, no interruptions for meetings, etc.). A good way to ensure that no work is being done is to provide a break area that is away from their workstation, if possible.

State law: A dozen states, including Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas, have no additional requirements. However, most have statutes that place some kind of additional requirement on employers. These range from establishing the length and number of breaks employers must offer to giving special consideration to the employer’s industry or to certain employee groups (i.e., minors, nursing mothers.).

Pennsylvania and Ohio state law, for example, adds the requirement that minors under 18 years of age cannot work for more than five (5) continuous hours without a 30-minute lunch break. According to FLSA, this break would not be considered time worked and would not require payment.

New York state law is a bit more complex. It recognizes three different meal periods that employers must offer, based on the industry and employee’s schedules. For example, employees who work a shift of more than six hours that extends past 2 p.m. must be offered a lunch period sometime between11 a.m. to 2 p.m. That break must be at least 60 minutes for factory employees and at least 30 minutes for employees of a mercantile or other establishment.

With all these laws, the obligation is on the employer to make those breaks available – but the law does not obligate the employee to take advantage of that break. If an employee does not take a meal break of more than 20 minutes, you MUST pay them for their time, even though the longer break was offered. Time worked is always time paid.

As the employer, however, you can make it your policy that all employees must take a meal break at a particular time, or during a particular length of shift (just be sure your policy complies with your state laws). Employees must be required to clock in and clock out accordingly. If you have such a policy in place, and an employee refuses to take that break (for reasons other than work requirements or supervisor directive), you should apply your disciplinary policy. However, even with the policy in place, if the employee works through their break without prior approval, you CANNOT deduct from their pay. The same is true if their meal break was interrupted for work (i.e., a supervisor request, a quick phone call, etc.). Again, time worked is time paid.

If you would like more information about laws in your state, you can contact your state department of labor. As always, if you have further questions, please let us know by send your questions to hrcounselorscorner@eastcoastrm.com. If you’d like email notification of all blog updates, just click the follow button at the bottom of the window.
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