Employee meal periods and breaks

You’ve heard it before – employees who say that if they work an 8-hour day, they are entitled to a 30-minute meal period and two 15-minute breaks.  This concept is reinforced through cartoons and sitcoms depicting employees clocking out for meals or demanding breaks from their employers.  In reality, under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), federal law does not require employers to provide employees with meal or other breaks during the workday.  Nevertheless, it may be wise for employers to offer brief respites to employees in order to boost work ethic, increase employee morale, and reduce employee fatigue, safety issues, and work injuries.  Furthermore, employers who have entered into a collective bargaining agreement with a union may have provisions that require their union workers to take a specific number of breaks during a regularly scheduled day.  Employers with minor employees should also be aware of the laws in their state dictating the number of hours these employees are allowed to work and if it is required for them to take breaks.

It should also be noted that short breaks taken by employees, usually about 5-20 minutes in length, are considered compensable time under the FLSA – in other words, this time must be used in determining if a non-exempt employee worked overtime during the week.  These kinds of breaks include coffee/water breaks, bathroom breaks, smoking breaks, and so forth.  Although this time is considered compensable, employers who find employees taking an unusual number of these breaks, and thus interfering with workflow, can discipline these employees for taking excessive breaks.  The discipline must be non-discriminatory and utilized consistently among all employees in the same situation.

Bonafide meal or other break periods, during which employees are completely relieved of all job duties, are not considered time worked and are not compensable under the FLSA.  These breaks are usually at least 30 minutes in length.  Employers who do offer these types of breaks can expect employees to clock in and out for these periods in order to accurately calculate their hours worked for the week.  In spite of what some employees may say, a paid 30-minute lunch break is not included or required within a full-time employee’s 8 (or more) hour workday.

Meal periods and breaks are not a legal requirement for most employers.  With this in mind, create a break policy that balances your company’s business demands with employee comfort and workplace satisfaction.