Breaks and Lunch Requirements

Four work colleagues chatting over lunch or break in the office canteen

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Breaks and lunch periods are times, specified by the employer, during which employees are not actively working on the job. Employees use break time, which generally lasts from five to 20 minutes per four hours worked, to eat, visit the restroom, read, talk with friends, smoke, and handle personal business.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has no requirements for employer-supplied breaks and lunch free time at work. However, if the employer does supply coffee breaks away from the job (generally 20 minutes or less), the employer is required to count these hours as compensated. They also count toward the accumulation of hours eligible for overtime payment.

Meal periods, that typically last 30–60 minutes, during which an employee eats breakfast, lunch, or dinner, are looked at differently by the DOL and various states. Lunch or meal breaks are not considered to be work time by the DOL and are not compensable, unless at the employer’s discretion or unless required by state law.

Non-exempt employees are most often assigned lunch times. Exempt employees take their hour when they find a convenient time. Employers do not need to permit employees to leave the work premises if they are otherwise completely freed from duties during the meal period.

Additionally, you need to be aware that two-thirds of states have their own rules about the length of lunch or meal breaks allotted during work days of various lengths. Even more states have laws concerning breaks and lunch for minors.

Common Answers About Meals and Breaks

Yes, an employer has to pay a non-exempt employee who works through lunch without permission. Even if you have explicitly told your employee to take a break, and even if the employee clocked out, if she continued to work during the break, she must be paid. You can discipline the employee by whatever means you prefer, including firing, but the employee must be paid for all time worked.

An employer may not dock the pay of an exempt employee who takes a long lunch. Exempt employees receive the same paycheck every pay period, regardless of how many hours they work. So, if your exempt employee spends two hours at lunch on Tuesday, her paycheck remains the same.

You have to pay employees who refuse to take breaks as required by state law. You are held liable. The responsibility to follow the state law lies directly on the shoulders of the employer. Make sure your employees take their breaks.

You can require an exempt employee to take lunch at a certain time. While you should give most exempt employees general control over how they schedule their day, you can require that they take a lunch break at a certain time. Evaluate whether this is something that is necessary and, if it's not, allow your exempt employee to control her own schedule.

An example of where you might find this necessary is in the case of an exempt store manager. You always need a manager on duty, and you can schedule lunches so that all managers are not on break at the same time.

Can an employer ask a non-exempt employee a work-related question while she's at lunch?  Yes, within limitations. As long as this is considered “de minimus” you can do so. For instance, it's okay to say, “Jane, where's the file on the Smith project?” but it's not okay to say, “Jane, can you get me the file on the Smith project, and add up our spend to date?” The latter question should wait until her break is over.

If employees want to skip their breaks and go home early, what are the rules? This depends on your state law and your business needs. If your state requires a lunch break, they have to take the break. If your state doesn't require specific breaks, it's up to your business needs to determine if that's allowable.

It may or may not make sense for you to allow someone to skip lunch and go home early, but that's a management decision. Keep in mind, employees who haven't had time to eat may not perform at as high of a level as needed.