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Employment Law -- Employee

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Legal Requirements for Lunch and Break Times

It may come as a surprise, but federal law does not require employers to provide rest or meal breaks. Typically, these requirements come from state laws. However, when an employer does provide their employees with breaks, federal law regulates how to provide and pay an employee for break time. Since work consumes much of our adult lives, it's good to stay informed on your rights and how these laws affect you.

Overview of Break Requirements

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is a federal law that prescribes several regulations to ensure employers treat their workers fairly. The FLSA applies to all employers in defined fields, regardless of the number of employees that the employer has. The FLSA covers most types of employees, but not all of these employees receive the same protections. White-collar executives, sales professionals, artists, and some other highly paid workers are some of those who do not receive protections. While employers can require their employees to take a rest or meal break, they cannot dictate how an employee uses their break. For instance, an employer cannot require an employee to eat their meal during a long break or go to the bathroom during a bathroom break. However, the rules controlling that period of break time do apply.

Short Breaks

A majority of employers offer employees short breaks ranging from 5 to 20 minutes. The law requires employers to pay their employees for these breaks. That means these short breaks count as work time and toward regular and overtime wages. On the other hand, unauthorized break time does not count as work time. So if you take an unauthorized break or take longer than authorized by your boss, they can deduct that amount of time off work from your wages. However, employers must first explain that unauthorized breaks will lead to a reduction in wages or other punishment.

Bathroom Breaks

Even though federal law does not require employers to provide breaks, different rules for the bathroom apply. All employers must provide a working bathroom to their employees, and they cannot make it difficult for an employee to use the bathroom. Generally, employers cannot discriminate against employees wishing to use the bathroom, especially if the employee has a protected medical condition. However, you may face repercussions for avoiding work by going to the bathroom or staying in the facilities for extended periods to avoid work.

Meal Breaks

Meal breaks or longer breaks are generally not work time. As such, an employer cannot force an employee to work during this break. During this unpaid break, employees are free to leave their work area. However, this does not always mean that the employee can leave the workplace during this break. Not all states have laws requiring employers to provide a meal break during a full workday. Those states with a meal break provision typically require a 30-minute meal break when an employee is working increments of six hours, eight hours, or more.

Do You Have to Work During Meal Breaks?

Again, since this is unpaid time, your employer should not interrupt your meal breaks with phone calls or work assignments. If they do, you may be able to recover to payment for the duration of that time spent working. However, there is an exception to this rule. If there is only one employee on duty, the employee may not have to be completely relieved of their duties during a long break. However, this requires the consent of the employee. If an employee requests to have an uninterrupted break, then their employer has to provide it.

Special Exceptions

There are a few special exceptions to these rules for specific workers. Some professions, like airline pilots, receive specific amounts of time for mandatory breaks. Other exceptions apply to protected classes of workers.

Child Labor Laws

Children must typically have a rest break or, in some cases, they may receive more break time than other workers. Generally, the break specifications are determined by the federal minimums and by additional state labor laws. Most states consider workers under 16 years old to be eligible for these special rules. In other states, 14 or 15 years old is the cutoff. A number of states determine these requirements by the type of labor the child is performing.

Mothers and Breastfeeding

The FLSA requires employers to provide nursing mothers with break time to breastfeed or pump for up to one year after giving birth. After this amount of time, any relevant state law applies, or an employer's individual policy would apply.

Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide disabled employees with reasonable accommodations, including reasonable break time. There is no one standard for a "reasonable accommodation" for every instance that may pop up, so some decisions may be left up to the employee and employer to decide.