Most employees who work eight hours get a lunch break or meal break. What many don’t know is these breaks aren’t necessarily required by the Department of Labor (DOL) or protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Work break laws, if they exist, or actually designated by state. However, tracking when your employees work, and when they break, is essential for paying them accurately, which is part of maintaining FLSA compliance.

Are there Federal Laws for Breaks and Meals?

For the most part, no. Federal law does not require employers to give lunch or coffee breaks. However, if your company decides to offer short rest breaks, the typical 15-minute break, the Department of Labor considers the breaks as compensable work hours under federal law. If a break lasts anywhere from five to 20 minutes, it must be included in the total number of hours worked by the employee during the week and count towards any overtime. That said, if an employee takes longer than his or her authorized break of five to 20 minutes, any extension would be considered unauthorized and those hours don’t have to be counted.

Here’s an example: Your employee handbook authorizes two 15-minute rest breaks per day. These breaks are beneficial to your company as your workers get to re-charge and come back more productive. You have an employee that continually takes a rest break that’s longer than 20 minutes. Since your policy is outlined in your handbook, which the employee has signed, that extra time does not have to paid or counted towards overtime. This is where time tracking, and a good employee handbook, are essential.

Lunch breaks are a little different. Bonafide meal periods (typically lasting at least 30 minutes) serve a different purpose than coffee or snack breaks hence, are not work time and are not compensable. The employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purpose of eating regular meals. The employee is not relieved if he/she is required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive while eating.

What Constitutes a Rest Break Versus a Meal Break?

The short answer is duration. Rest periods or rest breaks are short. As mentioned above, they run from five minutes to about 20 minutes and may include coffee breaks or snacks. It is common in the construction industry to offer a morning break and an afternoon break to workers. Rest breaks are paid and cannot be offset against other types of downtime, like on-call time or waiting time.

Bonafide meal breaks are not counted as work time. They are a time for the employee to eat a regular meal and may last 30 minutes or more. Although the Code of Federal Regulations states special conditions may dictate a shorter meal period. No work can be performed on a bona fide meal break. An office employee can’t be required to eat at their desk or a factory worker be at his or her machine while eating.

Break Laws by State

Only a handful of states have meal periods and break laws, although it is common practice for employers to offer paid and unpaid breaks for their employees in the states that don’t.

Basic Meal Break Standards by State

California break laws are some of the most extensive in the country. If an employee works more than 5 hours per day (unless the shift is only 6 hours or less) they are required to have a half-hour meal break. This break can be waived if both the employer and employee consent to it. Employers must also count an on-duty meal period as time worked if the nature of the work prevents a clocked-out lunch break. For this to occur, a written agreement between parties must exist. If an employee works more than 10 hours per day (but not more than 12 hours), the employee gets a second 30-minute meal break.

These break laws apply to employees in industries under 14 Orders, including agriculture and private household employees.

Employees in retail and service, food and beverage, commercial support service and health and medical industries are required to receive a half-hour meal break if their shift exceeds five consecutive hours. The mealtime can be counted as time worked if the position prevents employees from taking a break from all their duties.

Employees who work seven and a half consecutive hours or more must receive a half-hour meal break sometime after the first two hours of shift start and before the last two hours. The law excludes certain professional employees certified by the State Board of Education and any employer who gives workers 30 or more total minutes of paid rest or meal periods during a seven-and-a-half-hour shift.

Delaware employees who work for seven and a half consecutive hours or more must receive a half-hour meal break sometime after their first two hours of their shift and before the last two. The law excludes certain professional employees certified by the State Board of Education and workplaces covered by a collective bargaining agreement or other written employer/employee agreement providing otherwise.

Employees who work for seven and a half consecutive hours must receive at least 20 minutes for a meal break, no later than five hours after the start of their shift. Hotel room attendants must receive a 30-minute meal break if they work seven hours or more.

Workers must receive a reasonable off-duty period, typically a half-hour but it may be less under special conditions, between their third and fifth hour of work. The meal break is not counted as time worked and doesn’t include coffee breaks or snack time. The statute excludes employers subject to the Federal Railway Labor Act.

Employees who work for six consecutive hours receive a 30-minute meal break, except in cases of emergency. This mandate isn’t applicable in workplaces with three or fewer employees on duty at one time and the work allows employees frequent paid breaks throughout the day. It is also not applicable if collective bargaining or other written employer-employee agreement provides otherwise.

Workers receive a 30-minute meal break if they work more than six consecutive hours and a 15-minute break for four to six consecutive hours. If the employee works more than eight consecutive hours, the employer must provide a 30-minute break and an additional 15-minute break for every additional four hours worked. The statute applies to retail establishments.

Massachusetts employees receive a 30-minute meal break if they work more than six hours. The statute excludes ironworks, glassworks, paper mills, letterpress establishment, print works and bleaching or dyeing works.

The statute requires employers to give workers sufficient unpaid time for meal breaks for shifts lasting eight consecutive hours or more. Rest periods of 20 minutes or less must be included in their total hours worked. The statute excludes certain agricultural and seasonal employees.

Workers receive a half-hour meal break, off-premises, for each eight-hour shift. The statute is applicable to assembly plants, workshops or mechanical establishments unless the employee is covered by a collective bargaining agreement or written agreement between the employer and employee.

Employees receive a half-hour meal break if they work eight continuous hours. The statute is applicable to workplaces with two or more employees but excludes those employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

New Hampshire
Employees receive a half-hour meal break after working five consecutive hours unless it is feasible for the employee to eat while working and it’s permitted by the employer.

New York
New York factory workers must receive a one-hour, noon-day meal break. Workers receive a 30-minute noonday break period if they work shifts of more than six hours over the noon-day meal period. All other establishments and occupations are covered by the Labor Law.

Workers in all industries receive an additional 20 minutes between 5:00 and 7:00 p.m. for those working on a shift that starts before 11:00 a.m. and continues after 7:00 p.m.

For employees working more than six hours between 1:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., factory workers receive a one-hour meal break and all others receive 45 minutes midway through their shifts.

North Dakota
Employees may choose to take a half-hour meal break on each shift exceeding five hours. Two or more employees must be on duty and any collective bargaining agreements take precedence over the meal period requirement.

Employees receive a half-hour meal break, with relief from all duty, for each shift of six to eight hours between. The break occurs between the second and fifth hour of a seven-hour workday or between the third and sixth hour of a workday over seven hours. Or, the employee receives a 20 to 30-minute break, paid, if it is an industry practice or custom and the employer can show the nature of the work prevents relief from duty.

Rhode Island

Employees working a six-hour shift are entitled to a 20-minute meal break and a 30-minute break for an eight-hour work shift. The statute applies to all employers, except licensed health care facilities or where less than three workers are on the shift.

Employees who are scheduled to work six consecutive hours or more receive a half-hour meal break. The statute stipulates the meal break cannot be scheduled during or before the first hour of work. It applies to every employer, except in environments that provide ample opportunity to take an appropriate meal break.

The Vermont statute simply states employees must be given “reasonable opportunities” during work periods to eat and use the restroom.

Employees working more than five consecutive hours are to be given a half-hour meal break between two and five hours from the beginning of the shift. If employees are required to remain on duty or onsite, the break is counted as work time. An additional half-hour is given for employees working three or more hours beyond the regular workday.

West Virginia
In West Virginia, employees who work six or more hours receive a 20-minute meal break. The statute is applicable to all employers.

Any state not listed above does not have set statutes for employee designated meal breaks.

Basic Rest Break Standards by State

California workers receive a paid 10-minute rest break for every four hours worked, and if practical, the break should come in the middle of the work shift.

Workers receive a paid 10-minute rest period for each four-hour work period, as practicable, in the middle of each work period.

The Illinois statute applies to hotel room attendants. These workers must receive a minimum of two 15-paid paid rest breaks during each seven-hour or more workday.

Kentucky workers receive a 10-minute rest period for every four hours worked. The statute excludes employees protected under the Federal Railway Labor Act.

Workers in Minnesota receive a paid, adequate rest period for each four consecutive hours of work. The breaks may be used for restroom visits and may not be deducted from the total hours worked. The law excludes certain agricultural and seasonal employees.

Workers receive a paid 10-minute rest break for every four hours worked. If practical, the rest break should come in the middle of each work period.

Oregon workers receive a paid 10-minute rest period for every four-hour segment worked or a major portion thereof in one work shift. If feasible, the rest break should come in the middle of each work period.

Vermont employees are to be given “reasonable opportunities” during work periods to eat and use the restroom.

Employees in Washington are not required to work more than three hours without a rest period. A paid 10-minute rest period should be given for each four-hour work period, scheduled as near as possible to the midpoint of each work shift.

Special provisions for Minors

Even if a state doesn’t have specific meal or break requirements for adults, special provisions are made for workers under the age of 18. Minors receive more frequent or longer breaks than adult employees. The following 35 jurisdictions also have separate provisions requiring meal periods specifically for minors (when minors are covered by two provisions, an employer must observe the higher standard): Alabama, Alaska, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Guam, and Puerto Rico.

For example, Iowa doesn’t have labor laws for adults but does for minors. According to the Iowa Division of Labor, minors younger than 16 must be given a 30-minute break if they are employed five hours or more in a day.

California on the other hand has meal and rest break laws for both adults and minors. The state sets standards for working minors ages 12 to 17 and are different depending on if school is in session. And, for the construction industry, minors can only work in an office or clerical work capacity.

Time Tracking is Important for Compliance

No matter if your state has set statutes for break laws, every employer needs to comply with the FLSA and pay employees for time worked. If you’re tracking your employees’ hours on paper, you’re setting your company up for mistakes and possibly stiff penalties.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) strictly requires employers to pay non-exempt employees for all hours worked. This may include requiring an employer to pay an employee for time worked while on a bona fide meal or lunch break, even if the break is supposed to be unpaid. If you have an employee who works during an unpaid meal break, you may be required to pay them for that time, including if the extra time results in overtime.

Under the FLSA, employers can be fined for:

  • Willfully or repeatedly violating the minimum wage or overtime pay requirements, subjecting themselves to a penalty of up to $1,000 for each such violation.
  • Violating the child labor provisions, subjecting themselves to a civil money penalty of up to $10,000 for each young worker who was employed in violation.
  • Willfully violating the FLSA resulting in criminal prosecution and fines up to $10,000. A second conviction may result in imprisonment.

Employers can implement policies to prevent employees from working during an unpaid meal or lunch periods, such as requiring employees to eat lunch away from their workspace, to ensure they will not be held responsible for paying employees during that time. Using a time clock app is another way to ensure employees are paid for time worked.

ExakTime’s mobile time tracking app makes it easy for your employees to clock in and out for breaks and it allows supervisors to track crew times ensuring adequate meal breaks are taken at appropriate times. When paper time cards are used, hours can get padded but there’s also the chance that employees might forget exactly when they clocked in or out for a break. Time tracking software guarantees employees get everything that’s due to them. And because the tracking app instantaneous records hours and location each day with GPS capabilities, managers can see what crews have worked overtime (and where). If it has been a tough week, you can let them knock off a couple of hours early on Friday. Compliance is ensured as workers can view their total, regular and overtime hours for the week and then verify their time card totals by signing or tapping “Approve” right on their mobile devices.

Using a time tracking app not only helps employers accurately track when their employees work, including overtime but when they don’t work, i.e., sick leave and leave protected under the Family Medical Leave Act. ExakTime’s time tracking solutions not only help companies stay compliant with these laws but simplify payroll and make it more efficient.

With payroll syncing, all of the time stored in the app is automatically transferred to your payroll system. The data is exported in seconds, ensuring paychecks are accurate and on time. Your payroll department will have more time for other office responsibilities or big picture tasks.