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Federal and State Meal Break Law Compliance

Breaks have always been a bit tricky for business owners to tackle. With so many rules in place, it’s hard to decipher what to do to stay compliant with federal and state law. As of May 2020, twenty-one states and two U.S. territories have meal break requirements in place. Generally, employees must take their breaks by a certain time within their workdays and the breaks are paid. Whether you’re curious as to what your state’s rules are, or if you’re thinking about implementing a break policy at your workplace, this article will help you understand federal and state meal break requirements. 

Tracking Break Time Accurately

To start, tracking time correctly is vital when it comes to payroll or billing. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires all employers to track their employee’s time accurately. Employers must also pay employees for the hours they work with proper overtime calculations. Therefore, it’s very important that business owners track employees’ break times in an accurate fashion by using a system like An employer may inadvertently violate protocol if the employee’s timesheet does not reflect the hours and minutes worked. Because of this, the employer may face charges and penalties, and this is why it’s crucial that time is accurately recorded.

For every day an employee works, they must indicate when they arrive to work, when they take their unpaid and paid breaks, and when they leave for the day. If this isn’t accurately tracked, employers might underpay or overpay employees, which is in violation of the FLSA.

It seems simple enough to track time properly, but there’s trouble when an employee works through their meal breaks.

Working During Breaks- The Big “No No”

Some employees take it upon themselves to work during meal breaks. This is mainly due to the fact that employees feel as though they’re too busy and must get their work done. A recent study found that approximately 29% of employees work through their lunch breaks because of their work-hard mentalities. Working hard at the workplace is admirable, but there’s a time when working too much can cause issues.

First, an employee who works through lunch isn’t actually “on break”. An employee is truly on a meal break when relieved from all work duties. If the employee is working on job-related tasks throughout their break time, they’re still technically on the clock. As a result, if they’re on the clock, an employer must pay the employee for their time to avoid FLSA violations. Additionally, in some cases an employer has to pay an employee a full hour of their normal pay rate if they work through lunch– even if they only worked a few minutes. All in all, employees must stop working when they’re supposed to in order to stay compliant.

Yes, there are some exceptions when working through meal breaks. In California, for instance, employees can contractually agree to work through their lunch breaks. However, not every state follows the same rules, so it’s important to check with your state labor board so you understand what you can and cannot do.

Making Sure Employees Take Breaks

If you’re an employer, you may believe that you’re too busy to worry about whether employees are taking their breaks. That’s probably true for a lot of employers because you’re not avidly watching everyone’s timeclocks throughout the day. Most states understand that and they don’t expect you to ensure that employees take their breaks. Break time responsibility is typically within the hands of the employee. The employee must make sure that they take their breaks and don’t work during their meal periods. It’s best that you consult with your state labor board or human resource professional regarding break responsibilities.

Federal Break Requirements

There are no federal requirements to provide breaks. According to the Department of Labor (DOL), the federal government does not require employers to offer breaks. However, they do require employers to pay employees during short (less than 20-minute) breaks. Overall, if employers give employees breaks that last up to 20 minutes, they must pay employees for their break time. This break time is also included in their total hours, which determines their overtime for payroll. If the employee takes a break beyond their allotted time, the employer does not have to count that time as “hours worked”. Any break extensions are at the will of the employer. 

The DOL also mentions meal periods, which they call “bona fide meal periods”. These meal break periods typically last thirty minutes or more, and do not count as work time, meaning they aren’t compensable. To count as a true meal period, the employee must not work during this time:

“The employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purposes of eating regular meals. Ordinarily 30 minutes or more is long enough for a bona fide meal period. A shorter period may be long enough under special conditions.”

Electronic Code of Federal Regulations

State Meal Break Requirements

As of publishing, there are currently twenty-one states and two U.S. territories that require meal periods in private sectors. Private sector employees are those who work for individual business owners or other corporations. As for employees working in other states, meal break policies are up to employers. Here’s a complete list of current minimum meal period rules from the DOL:

LocationMeal Break Rule
California½ hour, if work is for more than 5 hours per day, except when workday will be completed in 6 hours or less and there is mutual employer/employee consent to waive meal period. On-duty meal period counted as time worked and permitted only when nature of work prevents relief from all duties and there is written agreement between parties. Employee may revoke agreement at any time.

An employer may not employ an employee for a work period of more than 10 hours per day without providing the employee with a second meal period of not less than 30 minutes, except that if the total hours worked is no more than 12 hours, the second meal period may be waived by mutual consent of the employer and employee only if the first meal period was not waived.

The Industrial Welfare Commission may adopt working condition orders permitting a meal period to start after 6 hours of work if the commission determines that the order is consistent with the health and welfare of the affected employees.
Colorado½ hour if work shift exceeds 5 consecutive hours. On-duty meal period counted as time worked and permitted when nature of work prevents relief from all duties.
Connecticut½ hour at some time after first 2 hours and before last 2 hours for employees who work 7½ consecutive hours or more.
Delaware½ hour, at some time, after first 2 hours and before the last 2 hours, for employees who work 7½ consecutive hours or more.
IllinoisAt least 20 minutes, no later than 5 hours after the start of the work period, to employees who work 7 ½ continuous hours or more.

Each hotel room attendant — those persons who clean or put guest rooms in order in a hotel or other establishment licensed for transient occupancy — shall receive one 30-minute meal period in each workday in which they work at least seven hours.
KentuckyReasonable off-duty period, ordinarily ½ hour but shorter period permitted under special conditions, between 3rd and 5th hour of work. Not counted as time worked. Coffee breaks and snack time not to be included in meal period.
Maine30 minutes after 6 consecutive hours, except in cases of emergency.
Maryland15 minute break for 4-6 consecutive hours or a 30 minute break for more than 6 consecutive hours. If an employee works 8 or more consecutive hours, the employer must provide a 30-minute break and an additional 15 minute break for every additional 4 consecutive hours worked.
Massachusetts30 minutes, if work is for more than 6 hours during a calendar day.
MinnesotaSufficient unpaid time for employees who work 8 consecutive hours or more. Rest periods of less than 20 minutes may not be deducted from total hours worked.
Nebraska½ hour, off premises, for lunch in each 8-hour shift.
Nevada½ hour, if work is for 8 continuous hours.
New Hampshire½ hour, after 5 consecutive hours, unless feasible for employee to eat while working and is permitted to do so by employer.
New YorkFactories- 1 hour noon-day period

All other establishments and occupations covered by the Labor Law- 30 minute noonday period for employees who work shifts of more than 6 hours that extend over the noon day meal period.

All industries and occupations- An additional 20 minutes between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. for those employed on a shift starting before 11 a.m. and continuing after 7 p.m.

1 hour in factories, 45 minutes in other establishments, midway in shift, for those employed more than a 6-hour period starting between 1 p.m. and 6 a.m.
North Dakota½ hour, if desired, on each shift exceeding 5 hours.
Oregon½ hour, with relief from all duty, for each work period of 6 to 8 hours, between 2nd and 5th hour for work period of 7 hours or less and between 3rd and 6th hour for work period over 7 hours; or, less than ½ hour but not less than 20 minutes, with pay, with relief from all duty, where employer can show that such a paid meal period is industry practice or custom; or, where employer can show that nature of work prevents relief from all duty, an eating period with pay while on duty for each period of 6 to 8 hours.
Rhode IslandAll employees are entitled to a 20 minute mealtime within a six hour work shift, and a 30 minute mealtime within an eight hour work shift.
Tennessee½ hour for employees scheduled to work 6 consecutive hours or more. The meal break shall not be scheduled during or before the first hour of scheduled work activity.
VermontEmployees are to be given “reasonable opportunities” during work periods to eat and use toilet facilities in order to protect the health and hygiene of the employee.
Washington½ hour, if work period is more than 5 consecutive hours, to be given not less than 2 hours nor more than 5 hours from beginning of shift. Counted as worktime if employee is required to remain on duty on premises or at a prescribed worksite. Additional ½ hour, before or during overtime, for employees working 3 or more hours beyond regular workday.
No employee shall be required to work more than five consecutive hours without a meal period.
West Virginia20 minutes for employees who work 6 hours or more in a workday.
Guam½ hour, after 5 hours, except when workday will be completed in 6 hours or less and there is mutual employer/employee consent to waive meal period. Not considered time worked unless nature of work prevents relief from duty.
Puerto Rico1 hour, if work period is longer than 5 consecutive hours, to begin after end of 2nd but before beginning of 6th consecutive hour worked, except when workday will be completed in 6 hours or less, meal period may be waived.
An employer may not employ an employee for a work period of more than 10 hours per day without providing the employee with a second meal period, except that if the total hours worked is no more than 12 hours, the second meal period may be waived if the first meal period was not waived.
Time and a half pay required for work during meal hour or fraction thereof, except any employee entitled to a higher rate prior to 1/26/17 may continue to receive that higher rate.
Department of Labor

What to Do

Employers should review their lunch policies with HR professionals and state labor boards to ensure compliance. Make sure that you know when employees should take breaks during their shifts and how long their breaks should be. Secondly, employers should consider investing in a time tracking system in which employees can record their break times., for instance, is a service that tracks accurate attendance with breaks and overtime, which helps keep everything in order. Proper time tracking will be the key to your success and protection.

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