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Meal Periods and Rest Breaks: 'What's Required?' and Other FAQs

Employers must comply with federal, state, and local rules governing meal periods, rest breaks, and break time for nursing mothers. To help you understand your obligations, we answer some frequently asked questions related to these breaks.

Meal Periods:

Q: Are we required to provide meal periods to employees?

A: While no federal law requires employers to provide meal periods, some states have laws that do. Some of these laws cover all employees but others are industry-specific or are limited to non-exempt employees or minors.

Q: Are we required to pay non-exempt employees for meal periods?

A: While federal law doesn't require meal periods, there are rules pertaining to pay when meal periods are provided (whether voluntarily or as a result of a state requirement). For a meal period to be unpaid under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the two following requirements must be met:

  • The 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 a regular meal.

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

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

A: Yes. You have to pay them for the full 30 minutes even if no clients need their 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 for that time.

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

A: If the employee's meal is interrupted, they should be paid for the full 30 minutes. To avoid interruptions, it's a best practice to have employees eat lunch 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 their supervisor that they worked through lunch. Do we have to 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: 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 then back 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 prohibit automatic deductions for meal periods. 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 have an exempt employee who took a two-hour lunch break without authorization. Can we deduct the extended lunch from their 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 their full salary. However, you can subject the employee to disciplinary action for taking an unauthorized extension.

Rest Breaks:

Q: Are we required to provide rest breaks to employees?

A: While no federal law requires employers to provide rest breaks, many states have laws that do. Some of these laws cover all employees but others are industry-specific or are limited to non-exempt employees or minors.

Q: My company provides employees with two 15-minute rest periods during the workday. These breaks aren't required by any law—we provide them voluntarily for productivity and safety purposes. Do we have to pay employees for these breaks?

A: Under the FLSA, rest breaks of a short duration are generally considered paid working time. The Department of Labor (DOL) defines a rest break as any period lasting 20 minutes or less that the employee is allowed to spend away from work. The duration of the break is generally the sole factor used when determining whether pay is required, not the reason for the break (such as for a cigarette, coffee, snack, or to make a personal phone call).

Q: Do I have to count rest breaks when determining whether a non-exempt employee has worked more than 40 hours in a workweek for overtime purposes?

A: Yes. Rest breaks are considered hours worked and must be counted when determining whether a non-exempt employee has worked more than 40 hours in a workweek.

Q: We provide a 10-minute rest period three times per shift. Some employees are extending these breaks to 20 minutes without authorization. Do I have to pay them for the extra break time?

A: Generally, when employees take unauthorized extensions of rest breaks, the time must be paid if the rest period lasts 20 minutes or less. However, the FLSA permits employers to exclude unauthorized extensions of rest periods from hours worked as long as the employer expressly and clearly advises employees that:

  • Breaks may only last for a specified duration (such as 10 minutes);
  • Unauthorized extensions are in violation of the employer's rules or policy; and
  • Violations of the employer's policy will be punished.

Breaks for Nursing Mothers:

Q: An employee has requested break time so that they can express milk for their newborn. What are my obligations as the employer?

A: Under federal law, employers must provide reasonable break time for a non-exempt employee to express breast milk for their nursing child for one year after the child's birth each time she has the need to express milk. Employers must also provide a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, that may be used by an employee to express breast milk.

Under federal law, employers aren't required to compensate nursing mothers for breaks taken for the purpose of expressing milk. However, where employers already provide compensated breaks, an employee who uses that break time to express milk must be compensated in the same way that other employees are compensated for break time.

Keep in mind some states and local jurisdictions have additional requirements for the lactation room and greater protections for employees, such as requiring that employers provide:

  • Paid break time to nursing mothers;
  • Break time to both exempt and non-exempt employees; and/or
  • Break time beyond one year after the child's birth.

Conclusion:

Make sure your company is complying with federal state, and local laws governing meal periods, rest breaks, and breaks for nursing mothers.

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