Breaks and Lunch Requirements

Do Salaried Employees Have to Take a Lunch Break?

Four work colleagues chatting over lunch or break in the office canteen
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What Is a Break for a Nonexempt Employee?

Breaks and lunch periods are times, specified by the employer, during which nonexempt 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 specific 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 pay.

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.

Nonexempt employees are most often assigned lunchtimes because of the nature of their work, often assembly, customer-facing jobs, and manufacturing. Employers do not need to permit employees to leave the work premises if they are otherwise completely freed from duties during the meal period.

Do Exempt Employees Have to Take a Lunch Break?

Exempt employees take their lunch hour when they find a convenient time, for the most part, and the length of the lunch or any breaks during the day is generally up to the employee.

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, their 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 required breaks.

Can You Schedule the Lunch Break of an Exempt Employee?

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 absolutely necessary, however, and, if it's not, your best approach may be to allow your exempt employees to control their own schedule.

An example of when you might find scheduling the time of an exempt employee's lunch 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.

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 workdays of various lengths. More states have laws concerning breaks and lunch for minors. Make sure that you are aware of what is legal in your jurisdiction.

Common Answers to Questions About Meals and Breaks

Nonexempt Employee Works Through Lunch?

Yes, an employer has to pay a nonexempt 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 they continued to work during their break, the employee 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.

Work-Related Questions During Lunch?

Can an employer ask a nonexempt employee a work-related question while they are 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.

Can Employees Skip Lunch to Go Home Early?

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 this is 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.