HR Tip of the Week

Meal Periods: "When Is Pay Required?" and Other FAQs

Meal Periods

While federal law does not require employers to provide meal periods, many employers do offer time off for meals. Although not required by federal law, many states have enacted laws requiring that employers provide meal periods. If you offer meal periods, in addition to complying with applicable state, local and industry requirements, consider the following frequently asked questions:

Q: Do we have to pay non-exempt employees for meal periods?

A: Non-exempt employees must be paid for each hour worked. Determining whether a meal period counts as "hours worked" depends on the circumstances. Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), an unpaid bona fide meal period:

  • Must generally be at least 30 minutes without interruption; and
  • The employee must be fully relieved of all duties for the purpose of eating regular meals.

Check your state law for additional guidance on meal period requirements.

Q: Our receptionist receives a 30-minute meal period, but we ask him to eat lunch at his desk in case the phone rings or clients arrive. Do we have to pay him if no calls come in and no clients arrive during that time?

A: Yes. You have to pay him for the full 30 minutes even if no clients need his assistance. If you require employees to do work, whether active or inactive, while they are eating their lunch, they aren’t completely relieved of duty and they must be paid.

Q: An employee often sits at her desk to eat her lunch during her 30-minute meal period. If her phone rings or a co-worker asks her a question, she will answer it. What are our obligations for paying her?

A: If the employee’s meal is interrupted, she should be paid for the full 30 minutes. To avoid interruptions, it’s a best practice to have employees eat their lunches away from their work stations. Employees should also report interrupted lunch breaks so that they can be paid for the time. If meal periods are interrupted, the employer may also allow employees to continue their meal period so that they receive a full, uninterrupted 30-minute meal period.

Q: We have a policy that states employees must notify their supervisor if they fail to take a lunch break. An employee violated this policy by failing to notify her supervisor that she worked through lunch. Must we pay the employee for the missed lunch period?

A: Yes. The employee must be paid for all hours worked, including the time worked during the missed meal period. You may, however, subject the employee to disciplinary action for failing to follow company policy.

Q: Do we have to include missed meal periods in our determination of whether overtime pay is due?

A: Yes. You must include all hours worked when determining whether overtime pay is due, including the time worked during the missed meal period. For example, if an employee works her typical workweek of 40 hours and misses two 30-minute meal periods, the employee worked 41 hours and must be paid one hour of overtime.

Q: We have a problem with employees returning late from their lunch break. Can we require employees to remain on our premises during meal breaks?

A: Under federal law, employers may require employees to remain on premises during meal periods, provided the employee is completely relieved of duty for the purpose of eating a meal. However, under certain state laws, requiring employees to stay on premises may affect whether the meal period is paid or unpaid. Check your state law to ensure compliance.

Q: Can my company automatically deduct lunch periods from employees’ hours?

A: It’s a best practice to require employees to clock out and in for their meal periods. This can help ensure that employees are paid for missed lunch breaks and account for times when employees return from lunch late. Time records should accurately reflect that the employee took a meal period, how long the meal period lasted, and the actual hours worked. In addition, some states have recordkeeping requirements regarding meal periods, and automatic deductions may violate these requirements. Check your state law for compliance.

Q: When reviewing employee timesheets, I noticed that an employee forgot to punch out for a number of 30-minute lunch breaks. Can I simply deduct the time?

A: Before making any changes, determine whether the employee actually took the lunch breaks. Speak with the employee and his or her supervisor when making this determination. If the breaks weren't taken, the employee must be paid for the time. Additionally, because of certain state recordkeeping requirements, automatic deductions may not be allowed. Check your state law for compliance.

Q: Some of my employees work a 12-hour shift. Do I have to give them more than one meal period?

A: While federal law doesn’t address this issue, some states require employers to provide a second meal period after a certain number of work hours. For example, California calls for a second meal period of no less than 30 minutes when employees work more than 10 hours per day. In the absence of a state or local requirement, it’s a best practice to provide additional meal periods when employees work long shifts.

Q: We offer "brown-bag lunches" where employees sit through a presentation while eating a company-provided lunch. Do we have to pay employees for this time?

A: Yes. You must pay employees for this time unless all four of the following criteria are met:

  1. Attendance is outside of the employee's regular working hours;
  2. Attendance is voluntary;
  3. The presentation is not directly related to the employee's job; and
  4. The employee does not perform any productive work during the session.

Q: We have an exempt employee who took a two-hour lunch break without authorization. Can we deduct the extended lunch from his salary?

A: No. The FLSA permits deductions from an exempt employee's salary only in very limited circumstances. In this case, the exempt employee must still receive his full salary. However, you can subject the employee to disciplinary action for taking an unauthorized extension.

Q: We give our employees a 10-minute coffee break and provide them with snacks. Do we have to pay employees for these breaks?

A: Yes. If you offer a short break (lasting 20 minutes or less), federal law does not consider the break a bona fide meal period. Rather, the break is part of the employee’s "hours worked" and must be included in the employee’s workweek and considered for overtime calculations. Under the FLSA, rest breaks of 20 minutes or less must be paid.

Conclusion:

When providing meal periods, comply with the FLSA as well as state and local laws, which may include industry-specific requirements.

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