Your employees work hard, and they deserve a break. But what exactly are your legal responsibilities surrounding rest breaks and meal periods? The answer can vary quite widely based on where your business is located.
Most people assume that there are cut-and-dry federal laws regarding break times and lunch hours. After all, the FLSA is usually quite specific in its requirements regarding issues such as employee classifications, minimum wage, and overtime pay. However, the guidelines around breaks can be quite vague, leaving a lot of room for flexibility as well as confusion for employers.
If you’re unsure of how to find out what your obligations are, or how to craft your own work break policy, we’ve compiled the key information. We’ve also added some helpful tips for employers to consider when deciding whether to offer more than the minimum required breaks.
Federal work break laws under the FLSA
Federal law actually does not require rest or meal breaks for adult employees. However, many states have their own work break laws. Nearly half of all states mandate that you must provide some form of rest or meal breaks to employees. Be sure to check all local and state laws when crafting your break policy.
It’s also helpful to remember that even if breaks aren’t legally required, it’s probably a good idea to offer them anyway to keep your employees happy. This is especially relevant for employees on their feet frequently, and those working outside in extreme weather who may need breaks to avoid potential health risks.
One interesting thing to keep in mind is that while federal law does not require employers to provide meal breaks, the Fair Labor Standards Act does provide guidelines on whether or not breaks should be considered as work time and paid. Under the FLSA, employers don’t need to count meal periods lasting 30 minutes or more as work time if the employee is completely relieved from duty. But if, for example, you require someone to assist customers or take business calls during lunch, you must count those minutes as paid time. Coffee breaks or other rest periods lasting 20 minutes or less are also considered time worked. Employees on-call during breaks must also be compensated.
If work breaks aren’t required, why should employers offer them?
If the FLSA does not require employers to offer lunch breaks or rest breaks, why do so many employers still offer them? For one, many states have their own break requirements that employers in the state will need to follow. 21 states currently require meal periods for adult workers, and 35 states have break provisions for minors. There are also seven states that require additional short rest breaks.
However, even employers in the states without rest break laws frequently choose to voluntarily offer work breaks to employees. There are several reasons why this is often a good choice.
Prioritizing employee wellness and improving performance
Breaks give employees time to recharge, fuel themselves, and enjoy a quiet moment away from their work. This is important for the employee’s own well-being. After all, most people work up an appetite during the workday, especially in fast-paced roles.
Workers who are hungry or overly fatigued are most likely to make mistakes, provide poor customer service, or exhibit decreased productivity. Employees working outside, especially in extreme heat, could become overheated and suffer other health risks without breaks to cool off. None of these side effects are good for businesses. In roles that involve personal or public safety concerns, denying workers breaks may increase liability as well since workplace accidents can be costly for employers.
Boosting employee satisfaction and retention
Employees who don’t receive breaks are more likely to feel overworked or underappreciated, leading to poor employee satisfaction ratings. The extra 30 minutes or so that you gain in productivity by skipping work breaks may end up costing you more later in lost productivity if it leads to turnover.
After all, replacing an employee can cost one-half to two times their annual salary in recruiting costs and lost productivity. You ideally want employees to leave work feeling fulfilled and accomplished, not like they’ve been running on empty for the last 8 hours without adequate rest or food.
Remaining competitive in recruiting
If you are an employer in an area without state or local work break laws, or even if your state does require breaks, it’s a good idea to look into what other employers in your area and industry are offering in terms of breaks. If you choose not to offer breaks while competitors are providing lunches and paid 15-minute breaks, you might have trouble attracting talent.
Just as generous PTO policies are becoming a top recruiting tool, a generous break policy can make you look like a great employer to prospective hires. Some companies in fields like tech are becoming particularly flexible (and advertising it) about allowing long lunches or flexible mid-day breaks to give employees time to hit a midday workout class or doctor’s appointment without clocking out. See what others in your region and industry are doing to guide your own break policy.
While this largely won’t apply for remote teams, in-person teams often do a lot of team building during breaks and lunches. Break rooms and lunch breaks offer an opportunity for employees to strike up conversations with people that they may not frequently work directly with during the day. They also offer an opportunity for co-workers to build more meaningful personal friendships.
Harvard Business Review explored the benefits of work friendships and found that they have a positive impact on employee productivity, satisfaction, and retention. Giving employees 15 or 30 minutes to foster workplace relationships can help strengthen these bonds and build morale in the workplace.
State work break laws
There is a wide range of state laws with varying levels of break requirements and specificity. Some have special rules for minors, certain industries, or even based on an employee’s start time. Let’s explore some different examples of notable state rest break requirements.
For a full list of meal break requirements by state, visit the Department of Labor’s meal break directory. Not all states have their own work break laws, in which case employers can just refer to the FLSA guidelines.
California work break laws
Employees are entitled to a paid break for each four-hour period worked. These breaks must last at least ten consecutive minutes and the employee should be relieved of all job duties and not interrupted during this time.
California employees are also entitled to an uninterrupted 30-minute meal period when working more than five hours in a day. This break does not have to be paid. It may also be waived by mutual consent between the employee and employer if the worker is working six hours or less. If an employee works more than 12 hours in a day, they are entitled to a second meal break.
Colorado work break laws
In Colorado, employees are entitled to an uninterrupted and duty-free meal period lasting at least 30-minutes if their shift exceeds five consecutive hours of work. The law states that meal periods should be offered at least one hour after the employee’s start time and one hour before the end of the shift, where practical. If the nature of the business activity or other circumstances makes an uninterrupted meal period impractical, the employer must allow employees to consume an on-duty meal while working.
Employees who work over two hours are entitled to a paid 10-minute rest break. Employees must receive a 10-minute break for each four-hour period or major fraction of a four-hour period that they work. The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment states that rest periods should be in the middle of each 4-hour work period to the extent possible.
Delaware work break laws
In Delaware, employees who work 7.5 consecutive hours are entitled to a half-hour break. This break must be provided after the first two hours of the shift and before the last two hours of the shift.
Delaware does provide several exemptions, including for:
Certain professional employees certified by the State Board of Education.
Workplaces covered by a collective bargaining agreement or other mutual agreement.
Circumstances where providing said break would adversely affect public safety.
Workplaces where only one employee may perform the duties of a position.
Companies that have fewer than five employees on a shift at a single place of business.
When the continuous nature of a business’s operations requires employees to respond to urgent or unusual conditions at all times. In such instances, the employees may remain on-call but should be compensated for their meal periods.
Illinois work break laws
Illinois updated its work break laws in January 2023, so Illinois employers may want to double-check their work break policies to ensure that they are complying with the updated laws. Employees who work shifts of at least 7 and a half continuous hours are entitled to a meal break of at least 20 minutes no later than 5 hours after the start of their shift. Employees that work a 12-hour shift or longer are entitled to a second meal period of at least 20 minutes.
Kentucky work break laws
Kentucky employees are entitled to one paid 10-minute rest period for each 4-hour work period. They are also typically entitled to an unpaid 30-minute meal break between the third and fifth hour when working a shift that is longer than five hours.
Massachusetts work break laws
Workers in Massachusetts have a right to a meal break lasting at least a 30-minutes if they work more than six hours during a calendar day. Employees may agree to work through their meal breaks, but they must be paid for the break time. Payment is also required for breaks if the employer requires the employee to stay at their worksite during the break. Exclusions are provided for iron works, glass works, paper mills, letterpress establishments, print works, and bleaching or dyeing works. Factories may also seek an exemption from the Attorney General of the state.
New York work break laws
New York is an interesting example, as the state actually sets special guidelines for certain industries, shifts, and job types.
The New York rest period requirements are:
Factory workers are entitled to a 60-minute meal break when working six or more hours.
Non-factory workers are entitled to a 30-minute lunch break between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. for shifts six hours or longer that extend over that period.
Non-factory workers who work shifts of more than six hours starting between 1:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. are entitled to a 45-minute meal break at the time midway between the beginning and end of their shift
All Workers are entitled to an additional 20-minute meal break between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. for workdays that extend from before 11:00 a.m. to after 7:00 p.m.
Oregon work break laws
Oregon has very detailed work break requirements. Non-exempt employees working six or more hours are entitled to a meal period of at least 30 minutes For shifts lasting six hours or more but less than seven hours, the meal period must be taken after the second hour worked and before starting the fifth hour of work. For shifts longer than seven hours, the meal period should be taken after the third hour worked and before the sixth hour of work. Employers must also provide an additional meal period to employees working 14 hours or more in a shift.
Oregon law requires that employees be relieved of all duties during the meal period. Under exceptional circumstances, Oregon law allows an employee to perform duties during a meal period. However, if that occurs, the employer must pay the employee for the entirety of the meal period.
Employees are also entitled to a break of 10 minutes or more for every four hours worked (or major part of four hours, defined as two hours and one minute through four hours). This break must be offered separately from the meal break and should be in the middle of the four-hour period where possible.
Per Oregon state law, an employer is not required to provide a rest period to an employee if all of the following conditions are met:
The employee is 18 years of age or older;
The employee works less than five hours in any period of 16 continuous hours;
The employee is working alone;
The employee is employed in a retail or service establishment, i.e., a place where goods and services are sold to the general public, not for resale; and
The employee is allowed to leave the employee’s assigned station when the employee must use the restroom facilities.
Rhode Island work break laws
Rhode Island is one of the few states that has different lunch break durations based on the employee’s shift length. Employees who work a six-hour shift in Rhode Island are entitled to a 20-minute meal break, while those working eight hours are entitled to a 30-minute meal break.
This requirement does not extend to employees working in healthcare facilities or companies employing less than three employees at one site during a shift.
Tennessee work break laws
Tennessee state law requires that employers provide a thirty-minute unpaid meal break if an employee is scheduled for six consecutive hours. However, the state does provide an exception for work environments that by the nature of their business provide ample opportunity to rest or take an appropriate break. In these instances, a formal break period is not required.
Vermont work break laws
Vermont has relatively vague work break laws. When no state law on work breaks is in place, policies can typically default to the FLSA guidelines. However, the FLSA does not require breaks at all and Vermont state law does dictate that employees be given “a reasonable opportunity” to eat, rest, and use the bathroom.
Therefore, Vermont employers should err on the side of caution and provide at least a short meal break unless the nature of the position allows frequent breaks and the ability to eat on the job during downtime.
Virginia work break laws
Virginia is another example of a state that typically defaults to FLSA guidelines for work breaks. However, like several states that don’t have adult work break laws in place, Virginia does require breaks for minors. In Virginia, employees under 16 are entitled to a 30-minute meal break after working five hours.
Washington work break laws
Washington employees must be allowed a paid break lasting at least 10 minutes for every 4 hours worked. They are also entitled to a 30-minute break when working more than 5 hours. This meal break should be provided after the second hour but before the fifth hour of the shift. The meal break can be unpaid as long as the employee is relieved of all duties and able to leave the worksite if desired. Employees working three or more hours beyond the regular workday are entitled to a second 30-minute break, before or during their overtime.
Sample work break policy
It is the policy of the company to comply with all applicable laws regarding work breaks and lunch periods. All employees must take their set work breaks during the required time slots and document any breaks of 30 minutes or more on their timesheets.
All employees who work a full day will receive a daily, 30-minute, unpaid lunch break as well as two 15-minute paid breaks. Lunch breaks should be taken during the middle of your work shift before the fifth hour from your start time.
Employees working half-day will not receive a lunch break, but are still entitled to a 15-minute break. Employees should aim to take this approximately two hours into their shift.
Employees are responsible for letting their direct supervisor, or the supervisor on duty, know that they will be going on break. Employees may leave the premises during their break periods, but must return by their designated return time. Employees who extend their breaks beyond the allocated time without authorization may be subject to disciplinary action.
Additional work break requirements and considerations
Beyond the state and federal laws and business considerations, there are a few other factors that may impact employee work breaks.
Work breaks and the ADA
In addition to the standard legally required work breaks, companies should also be aware of their responsibilities under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. For ADA accommodation purposes, a disability is defined as a condition that interferes with one or more major life activities.
One of the more common reasonable accommodations offered under the ADA is extra break times. For example, an employee with arthritis or carpal whose job primarily involves typing may receive short hourly breaks to help limit joint pain and prevent injury. Employees may also need extra breaks to check blood sugar or take medication.
ADA accommodations generally need to be provided unless doing so would put undue hardship on the employer. In the case of added breaks, an employee who regularly works alone taking extra breaks may require the business to temporarily close or require major changes and extra costs in the staffing schedule. Employers may have an argument that offering this accommodation would create an undue hardship for the business.
Work breaks for lactating mothers
While the FLSA does not typically require work breaks or meal periods to be given, the labor law does dictate that employers provide unpaid break time and space for nursing mothers to express breast milk for one year after the child’s birth. If employers already provide paid work 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. Some states have additional guidelines that may extend these protections for lactating mothers.
If employees are unionized and working under a collective bargaining agreement, there may be additional guidelines in place regarding the length and frequency of rest breaks. This is a topic that is usually negotiated and agreed upon in bargaining agreements. Any business employing union laborers should ensure that they are clear on all required break period requirements.
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