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Legal Requirements for Lunch and Break Times

Federal law doesn't require employers to provide breaks for rest or meals. However, it does regulate how breaks are provided and paid. State law also often provides additional protections to employees regarding break times and requirements.

Most of the federal regulations about break times derive from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This law does not protect many salaried white-collar employees, such as executives or professionals in outside sales, creative work, computer programming, and other related fields. Unlike many federal laws that cover workplace standards, the FLSA applies to all employers in defined areas, regardless of how many employees the employer has.

There are special exceptions to this rule for some occasions and professions. Airline pilots, for example, are given a defined rest time. Children performing agricultural labor are also given more rest time.

Short Breaks

When employers offer short breaks (5 to 20 minutes), the law requires employers to pay for those breaks. They are considered work time, and count for wages and overtime calculations.

Employers are allowed to punish or dock employees for unauthorized breaks. The employee can also be punished for taking a longer break than authorized. Extra unauthorized break time does not have to be counted as work time. However, the employer must have previously explained that unauthorized break time will lead to punishment or lost wages.

Although federal law doesn't require breaks, it does require employers to provide bathroom facilities. It also prevents employers from making employee use of bathrooms difficult. Most states do not require employers to provide short breaks.

Meal Breaks

Longer breaks provided for meals are not considered work time. Federal law states that employers cannot require employees to work during their meal break. For example, if an employee is interrupted by work assignments or phone calls and cannot take a full break, the employee must be paid for that time. Employees must be allowed to leave their work area, but not necessarily the employer's premises.

There is an exception for instances when only one employee is on duty. In cases where there is only one employee, the employee does not have to be relieved of duty during a meal break. However, this is only when the employee consents; if the employee requests an uninterrupted meal break, the employer has to provide it.

Only 24 states require employers to provide a meal break during a full work day. These state laws generally require a 30-minute break.

Other Requirements

It should be noted that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to disabled employees with regard to break times. For example, an employee in a wheelchair might require a longer bathroom break than otherwise allowed. State disability laws also cover this area. The ADA does not set defined standards for what "reasonable accommodation" means in every instance.

While employers can require employees to take rest breaks or meal breaks, they cannot require employees to use their breaks only for a defined purpose. For example, employers can't require employees to eat during their lunch break or go to the bathroom during a bathroom break.

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