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Legal Requirements for Lunch and Break Times

With working lunches and lunch meetings becoming common, it may feel like you never get a proper break from work. This is all the truer as people continue to work from home after the pandemic made many jobs remote. Since work consumes much of our adult lives, it’s good to stay informed on your employment rights and how these laws affect you.

This page gives a broad overview of the legal requirements for meal and break times and links to more detailed articles that can help you answer specific questions. Because employment laws vary by state, we suggest consulting an employment law expert in a city near you to give you the best advice about your unique circumstances.

Overview of Break Requirements

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act (F.L.S.A.) is a federal law that ensures employers treat their workers fairly. The F.L.S.A. applies to all employers in defined fields, regardless of the number of employees that the employer has. The F.L.S.A. covers most types of employees, but not all employees receive the same protections.

For example, white-collar executives, sales professionals, and artists do not receive protection.

The F.L.S.A., however, does not require employers to provide breaks to employees. Instead, states make and enforce break laws. Generally, break laws only apply to non-exempt employees.

While employers can require their employees to take a rest or meal break, they cannot dictate what an employee does on their break. For instance, an employer cannot require an employee to eat their meal during a long break or go to the bathroom only during a designated break.

Rest Periods

Although not required by all states, most employers give employees short rest breaks ranging from 5 to 20 minutes. Doing so helps prevent employee burnout and keeps the workplace from turning toxic.

By law, employers must pay their employees for these breaks. That means these short breaks count toward regular and overtime wages. On the other hand, unauthorized break time does not count as work time. So, employees who take an unauthorized break or take longer than allowed can have their wages reduced for the extra time they took. However, employers must first explain that unauthorized breaks will result in such punishment.

Rest break laws differ by state. Under California law, employees get one paid rest break for every four hours worked. While in Oklahoma, rest break requirements apply only to minors under 16.

Bathroom Breaks

Although federal law does not require employers to provide rest or meal breaks, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (O.S.H.A.) requires employers to provide bathroom breaks. Additionally, the bathroom must be in working condition and easily accessible.

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 abusing bathroom breaks.

Meal Breaks

Like rest breaks, meal break laws differ by state. Some states, such as New Mexico, do not require the employer to provide breaks, while others require at least one meal break, often called a lunch break, during a full workday.

Despite state requirements or lack thereof, it has become standard practice to provide employees with a meal break when they work a certain number of hours.

For example, New York employees get a 30-minute or one-hour meal break, depending on their industry.

California employers must provide a 30-minute lunch break when an employee works five hours or more and a second meal break after ten hours of work. The employer and employee can agree to waive the California meal period when the workday is less than six hours. Puerto Rico has a similar second meal period requirement to California’s.

The Nevada labor code requires a 30-minute meal break for an 8-hour shift. Minnesota only requires sufficient mealtime for employees who work 8 hours or more to have a meal, but the employer must pay the employee for breaks less than 20 minutes.

Some states limit when the employee can take a lunch break during a work period. Delaware, for instance, requires the employee to take a 30-minute break sometime after the first two hours and before the final two hours of a seven-and-a-half-hour shift. Lunch breaks generally do not count as work time, so they are unpaid.

Some states only require meal breaks in specific industries. For example, Rhode Island only requires a 20-minute unpaid meal period for employees in a workshop, mechanical, manufacturing, or mercantile establishment on a six-hour or more work shift.

Maryland’s break requirements only apply to minors under 18 and certain retail employees.

After How Many Work Hours Is a Lunch Break Required?

How many hours an employee must work before they get a lunch break varies by state. Colorado requires a paid, uninterrupted 30-minute meal for employees covered by Colorado’s Minimum Wage Order who work more than five consecutive work hours. New Hampshire‘s law is similar. A Connecticut employer must provide a 30-minute meal break for seven-and-a-half-hour shifts or longer.

What’s the Required Length of a Lunch Break?

Most states require a 30-minute meal break. Illinois, however, only requires a 20-minute break. Vermont requires a “reasonable opportunity” for employees to eat and use the restroom.

Do You Have to Work During Meal Breaks?

If an employee requests an uninterrupted break, their employer must provide it. Again, since this is unpaid time, your employer should refrain from interrupting your meal breaks with phone calls or work assignments. If they do, you may be able to recover payment for the 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.

Are Hourly Employees Required to Take a Meal Break?

Whether an employee can skip a lunch break depends on state law. Generally, in states that require lunch breaks, the employee must take them. Otherwise, it is at the employer’s discretion whether an employee may skip meal breaks.

Notable Exceptions to Rest Periods and Meal Breaks

There are a few notable exceptions to these rules for specific professions. For example, airline pilots have special rules governing their breaks. California labor law applies exceptions to motion picture industry employees. Other exceptions apply to protected classes of workers.

Collective Bargaining Agreements

Collective bargaining agreements can require rest and meal breaks in states that do not mandate them. For example, a unionized security guard may receive a 30-minute unpaid meal break, and two ten-minute rest breaks during an eight-hour shift.

Child Labor Laws

Children must typically have a rest break or, in some cases, may receive more or longer break periods than other workers. Generally, break requirements for children are determined by the federal minimums and by other state labor laws. Most states consider workers under 16 years old eligible for these special rules.

Alaska minors aged four to 17 must have at least a 30-minute break.

In Michiganminors who work more than five consecutive hours get a 30-minute break. New Jersey is similar.

In Floridaminors receive a 30-minute break every four hours.

Several states determine these requirements by the type of labor the child performs. For instance, Arkansas requires rest breaks for children under 16 working in the entertainment industry.

Mothers and Breastfeeding

The F.L.S.A. requires employers to provide nursing mothers with break time to breastfeed or pump for up to one year after giving birth. State law or the employer’s policy can expand those requirements.

Americans With Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (A.D.A.) requires employers to provide disabled employees with reasonable accommodations, including breaks. There is no objective standard for a “reasonable accommodation” because every disabled employee’s situation may differ. So, what is a reasonable accommodation is often left up to the employer and employee to decide.

The Benefit of an Attorney

If you feel like your employment rights have been violated, it’s imperative that you speak to an experienced local attorney as soon as possible. This complex area of law is made more complicated by the many variations in state laws. Local employment lawyers will have the knowledge and skill to provide you with the answers you seek.

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