What Meal and Rest Breaks Do Employees Get?

Workers in cafeteria
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Are you entitled to a lunch break or to get paid for time taken to eat a meal? Federal law (state laws may vary) does not require rest or coffee breaks for employees, though many companies do provide breaks. Lunch, dinner, or other meal periods (typically lasting at least 30 minutes) are not considered work time and employees are not entitled to be paid for their meal break.

However, some states have laws that provide for breaks.

Laws vary based on location, classification of workers and the age of the employee.

Read below for more information about federal and state laws related to meal and rest breaks.

Meal Breaks and Federal and State Law

Federal Laws
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require employers to provide meal or extended rest breaks. 

State Laws
Less than half of U.S. states require companies to provide a meal or rest break. In many of these states, workers who work over 6 hours at once must be allowed 30 minutes to eat or rest. In order to avoid fraud, many states also enforce that this time is taken in the middle of the shift and not at the beginning or end, so as to protect employees from losing their break. 

Here's a list of state laws which cover paid rest breaks from work, including rest breaks and bathroom breaks. In some locations, the breaks are paid.

Of the states that do have break laws, some have employment laws which cover all employees; others cover specific industries and classifications of workers.

Maryland, for example, has a "Shift Break Law" that covers some retail workers. Paid rest breaks are currently required by state law in California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Vermont, and Washington.

About half of U.S. states provide for meal breaks. The states which do regulate meal breaks typically provide for 1/2 hour after every 5 or 6 hours worked.

How Many Breaks Do Employees Get During a Work Day?

There are no federal regulations that determine a set number of breaks per number of hours worked. Some states have employment laws which determine how many breaks from work an employee is entitled to during a shift.

For example, in Minnesota, time to use the nearest restroom must be provided within every four consecutive hours of work. California provides a paid ten-minute rest period for every four hours worked. Vermont doesn't specify the length of time of the break, but says "Employees are to be given 'reasonable opportunities' during work periods to eat and use toilet facilities."

Company Policy

When breaks aren't stipulated by law, employers may have company policies in place that provide for a certain amount of break time per work shift. Union collective bargaining agreements may also provide for breaks from work.

For example, an employee could be given a 30-minute lunch break (unpaid) and two 15-minute breaks (paid) during each eight-hour shift. Or, as another example, an employee could have a 20-minute break in the morning and an hour for lunch.

For a six-hour shift, an employee could receive two 10-minute breaks or a 20-minute lunch break.

Another option is giving an employee a break after a certain amount of hours of work. For example, an employee might receive a fifteen-minute break after every 3 hours of work.

When company policy determines break periods, the amount and duration of breaks are set by the employer.

Pay for Breaks from Work

Although it might be required that employees have a break, employers are not required to pay for it other than for a short break. When employers provide short breaks from work (usually lasting about 5 to 20 minutes), federal law considers the breaks as work hours you should be paid for.

If an employee works through lunch, they are still legally entitled to compensation for their time. Employers must pay you if your state requires paid lunch breaks or if you had to work through what should have been a break.

This time should be included in the sum of your hours worked during the work week and considered in determining if overtime was worked. Employees that are not allowed to take breaks or are forced to work through their lunch hour without compensation should contact their state labor department to submit a claim against their employer.

Breaks for Nursing Mothers

The Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child's birth. Here's more on breaks for nursing mothers.

Check With Your State Department of Labor

If you are concerned that you're not receiving the correct amount of break time, check with your state department of labor for information on break time regulations.

Read More: Pay for Meal Breaks | Pay for Breaks