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The answer to this, and many other HR questions, is that it depends on the state the employer is operating in and/or where the employee is physically located. Many employers provide employees with a rest or lunch break, either paid or unpaid. While the federal wage and hour law, called the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), doesn’t require employers to provide meal or rest breaks, many states have their own set of regulations on whether employers need to provide meal and rest breaks. Some states only require them for minors, while others require them for all employees after a certain number of hours are worked. For example, in Massachusetts, it is required to provide a 30-minute meal break to an employee if they work more than 6 hours in a day.

When employers do offer short breaks (consisting of 5 to 20 minutes), federal law considers those breaks part of an employee’s compensable work hours. Therefore, short breaks would be included in the total hours worked during the work week and considered when determining if overtime was worked.

“Bona fide” meal periods — meaning an employee is relieved of regular duties to eat a meal — typically last at least 30 minutes. Unlike coffee or snack breaks, meal breaks are not considered work time and are not compensable. Employers can always decide to be more generous and pay for the meal period, but it is not required and, most commonly, is unpaid. The key here is that employees must be fully relieved of all their responsibilities.

For example, if you ask someone to watch the phone while they eat their lunch, they must be paid for that time because they are not being completely relieved of duty. For companies that host “lunch and learns,” you must pay employees for this time, unless attendance is voluntary, the lunch is outside their regular working hours, the lunch is not directly related to their job or the employee doesn’t perform any productive work during this time.

Employees that take breaks without permission or extend their approved break time don’t need to be paid for that time, as long as the employer had clearly communicated its break policy, such as in an employee handbook. Employees that work through their lunch without authorization must be paid for all time worked, however, you could discipline the employee for failure to notify supervisors.

While many states have meal and rest break provisions, employers that operate in states where there is no clear state or industry regulation or guidance about a particular aspect of a meal or rest break, should err on the side of caution and provide reasonable breaks, and clearly communicate their expectations.

This content is provided with the understanding that HR Knowledge is not rendering legal advice. While every effort is made to provide current information, the law changes regularly and laws may vary depending on the state or municipality. The material is made available for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for legal advice or your professional judgment. You should review applicable laws in your jurisdiction and consult experienced counsel for legal advice. If you have any questions regarding this content, please contact HR Knowledge at 508.339.1300 or email us.