Meal and rest periods can promote efficiency among your employees and can improve performance by allowing workers to step away from their duties and clear their heads. It may surprise you to learn, however, that only 1 in 5 employees actually takes a lunch break, according to a survey by Right Management. Whether it’s because workers feel pressured to perform, employers set unrealistic work goals or the office culture generally frowns upon meal breaks, many employees are working through their lunch hours.


Isn't all this extra time good for the company’s bottom line? Not necessarily. Employers who allow their employees to work during their meal breaks in violation of the law may be liable for unpaid wages (including overtime) as well as costly liquidated damages.

Know Your Obligations Under Federal Law…

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require meal or rest breaks (other than nursing breaks) be given to workers. However, employers that offer these breaks must adhere to certain standards.


Meal Breaks

Under the FLSA, bona fide meal periods (typically lasting at least 30 minutes) are different from a quick coffee or snack break. For nonexempt employees, they are not work time and are not compensable. (Keep in mind that exempt employees must be paid in full for any day worked.)

 Employer's obligations for meal and rest breaks

The employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purpose of eating regular meals. Problems arise when employers fail to recognize and count certain hours worked as compensable hours. For example, an employee who remains at his or her desk while eating lunch and regularly answers the telephone and refers callers is working. This time must be counted and paid as hours worked because the employee has not been completely relieved from duty. Note that, under federal law, it is not necessary that an employee be permitted to leave the premises if he or she is otherwise completely freed from duties during the meal period.  


Employers may also have obligations under state law.


Rest Breaks

According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), rest periods of short duration, usually 20 minutes or fewer, are common in industry, promote the efficiency of the employee and are customarily paid for as working time. Since these breaks are compensable work hours under federal law, they must be included in the sum of hours worked during the work week and taken into account when determining if overtime was worked.


Unauthorized extensions of authorized work breaks need not be counted as hours worked when the employer has expressly and unambiguously communicated to the employee that the authorized break may only last for a specific length of time, that any extension of the break is contrary to the employer's rules, and any extension of the break will be punished. Your state law, however, may be different.


Break Time for Nursing Mothers

All employers covered by the FLSA must provide break time for nursing mothers. Employers are required to provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk.  Employers are also required to provide a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk. (Employers with fewer than 50 employees are not subject to this break time requirement if compliance would impose an undue hardship.) 


Employers are not required under the FLSA to compensate nursing mothers for breastfeeding breaks.  However, where employers already provide compensated breaks, an employee who uses that break time to express milk must be compensated in the same way that other employees are compensated for break time. In addition, the employee must be completely relieved of duty or the time must be compensated as work time. Be sure to check with your state labor office for additional requirements.

…And State Law

Some states follow federal law, requiring no specific break times for employees, while other states require that employees get 30-minute lunch breaks, plus breaks for hours worked during the day. Still other states stipulate when the break must be given. The DOL offers helpful charts outlining each state's meal and rest break requirements. To find our your state’s requirements regarding breastfeeding breaks, refer to your state labor office.

Tips for Employers

To stay in compliance with the law, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Clearly convey what is acceptable, and what is not acceptable, in terms of breaks. This can be done in an employee handbook (if your company distributes one) or wherever you post general employment policies.
  • Be consistent. Do not allow one employee to extend his or her paid rest break unless you’re prepared to do the same for all employees.
  • If your state or company policy requires you to provide unpaid meal breaks, emphasize that no work at all should be done during these breaks.


For More Information

Check out the survey by Right Management for more details on why many employees skip their lunch breaks. Our State Laws section features important information on state-mandated rest and meal breaks—simply choose your state of interest and click on "Meal & Rest Breaks" in the left navigation menu.


And don't forget to download our FREE Personnel Recordkeeping Guide—a great resource for keeping on top of your federal recordkeeping obligations!


Related:  8 Topics to Include in Your Employee Handbook


Image Credit: Victor 1558


Topics: Employee Benefits, Human Resources, Employee Health and Wellness

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