You may wonder if you are entitled to a meal period and rest breaks at your place of work. Unfortunately, federal law does not require employers to give workers breaks, and not all states have enacted break requirements; even the laws of those that do can vary.
But companies don’t always follow the rules regarding meal and rest breaks in states that require them. In early 2022, for example, Family Dollar was fined $1.5 million for nearly 4,000 meal break violations in Massachusetts.
Even if you are pressured to work through breaks due to understaffing or reduced hours, you may still be entitled to meal breaks depending on the state you work in. It’s essential to know your rights to meal and rest breaks at work.
Federal & State Meal Break Laws
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require meal or rest breaks. However, some states have enacted laws requiring meal breaks for workers. While only a handful of states have meal break laws, those that do usually require at least 30 minutes for adults working more than five or six hours per day. Some examples of states that have meal break requirements are Colorado, Washington, California, Nevada, Kentucky, and Massachusetts.
See the Department of Labor’s website for a map of states with required meal periods for adult employees and their standards.
Paid & Unpaid Rest Break Laws
As with meal breaks, the FLSA does not require rest breaks for most workers. The only break time required by federal law is to allow nursing mothers to express breast milk. If your employer does offer short breaks (up to 20 minutes), those breaks are considered compensable and can count toward hours worked and overtime, if applicable.
Currently, only nine states have laws on paid rest breaks; these laws usually follow the standard of a 10-minute rest period for every four hours of work completed.
Break Laws for Minors
Many states have stricter rules for employees under 18. In addition to restrictions on working hours based on the age of the employee, the Department of Labor lists 35 states which have separate provisions requiring meal or rest periods for minors.
For example, adults in states that require meal breaks may not be able to take their break until six hours into their shift, but minors may be entitled to their meal break after five or fewer hours of work, depending on the state.
What to Do if You Aren’t Getting Your Breaks
If you work in a state requiring meal periods but your employer won’t let you take breaks, you may have a claim. In California, for example, you are entitled to one hour of pay at your regular rate if you don’t take your meal break.
If you are entitled to a meal break but don’t receive one, contact your state’s Department of Labor to file a complaint or talk to a wage and hour attorney. If you get an unpaid meal break but are being pressured into working during that time, you should be paid.
Another Common Problem: The “Phantom” Break
Many employers maintain company policies that their employees are supposed to take unpaid breaks at certain intervals and, instead of requiring the workers to clock out for these periods, the company takes an automatic deductions from the employee’s pay or automatically reduces the employee’s hours worked by the length of the scheduled break.
If you actually take this break, i.e., you do not work during the full break period, then there is nothing wrong with this system. However, the auto-deducted breaks often cause a problem when employees work through some or all of the break.
If you are scheduled for a break but don’t actually get to take it, you should be paid for this time.
Being Kept from Your Breaks? Call Biller & Kimble, LLC
You should never be prevented from taking the meal breaks or rest periods you are entitled to under the law. You also shouldn’t compromise your break time by eating while working or skipping breaks. The FLSA requires employees who get meal periods to be completely relieved from duty while eating.
If you believe your employer is violating your rights regarding meal breaks or rest periods, a wage and hour lawyer at Biller & Kimble, LLC can help.