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HR Policies

Tips on Breaks and Meal Periods

Give me a break!  

Employee breaks and meal period requirements are confusing to employers and employees alike.  I will attempt to make it clearer, or at least less confusing.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, the federal law better known for regulating minimum wage and overtime, divides breaks into two categories, rest breaks and meal periods.

Rest breaks

The FLSA does not require an employer to provide rest breaks.  However, if it does, then the employer must pay workers if the break is 20 minutes or less.

Meal periods

Employers must pay workers for a meal period if it is less than 30 minutes.  If the meal period is 30 minutes (or more), then it may be with or without pay, depending on if the employee is free from work.  If the employer requires the employee to stay in his work area, they may have to pay the employee, even if the meal break is 30 minutes or more.  If the employer asks the employee to do work during the break, it may have to pay for the entire break.  Employees who eat at their desk and answer the phone or answer emails, or who come back to their desk from a break early every day and start working, may have a pay claim, even if the company policy is to give an unpaid 30 minute break.  Management has to enforce the policy, in writing and in practice, or pay the employee.

Although it is not explicit in the law, the Department of Labor’s position is that employers must pay workers for any break of less than 30 minutes, whether it is a rest break or a meal period.  This is not exactly how the law reads, but that is their interpretation.  

Employers must provide non-exempt (hourly) employees who are mothers with the time and space to express breast milk for one year after the birth of a child.  Employers would be wise to give exempt (salaried) mothers the same benefit.

State laws can vary

State law can vary from Federal statutes.  (Keep in mind that the Federal law is still in effect if a state does not have a law).  As an example, let’s take a quick look at three states:  New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

New York’s break period law says that the employer does not have to give a break period, but if it does, breaks of up to 20 minutes must be paid.  Employers must give an uninterrupted meal period of at least 30 minutes to employees who work a shift of more than 6 hours starting before 11am and continuing until 2pm.  The meal period should be between 11am and 2pm, which does not need to be paid.  

New Jersey law allows company policy to dictate break and lunch periods for anyone over the age of 18. 

In Connecticut, state law does not require an employer to provide a break. The employer is required to provide a meal period after the employee has worked 7.5 or more consecutive hours.  The meal period must be at least 30 consecutive minutes and must be given at some time after the first two hours of work and before the last two hours.

Conclusion

Break and meal periods are part of every workplace.  Often it is not clear to employers or employees what the rules are.  This should help with your policies.

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