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Employers may have a difficult time figuring out which employees are entitled to take meal and rest breaks and what rules they have to follow when offering those breaks. Do workers have to be paid for breaks? Do breaks have to be taken at a certain time during the shift? Here's what employment law attorneys told SHRM Online.
Federal law does not require meal or rest breaks for adult employees, said Richard Greenberg, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in New York City. For employers that choose to offer short breaks (up to 20 minutes), the Fair Labor Standards Act does require employers to pay employees for that time and count that time as hours worked when calculating overtime pay.
Most meal and rest break rules are governed by state law, but compliance can be tricky, particularly for multistate employers that have to consider many different requirements, said Charles McDonald, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Greenville, S.C.
Examples of State Differences
State laws differ as to the frequency of breaks required, whether workers can waive breaks and whether employees must be allowed to leave the premises, Greenberg explained.
[SHRM members-only resource: Meal and Rest Break Requirements by State]
In California, for example, workers are entitled to a 10-minute paid rest break for every four hours worked "or major fraction thereof" and a 30-minute unpaid meal break for every five hours they work. Employees can waive their right to take a meal break but only if they work no more than six hours. In certain circumstances, an employee may be permitted to have an "on-duty" meal period, but the time must be paid at the worker's regular rate of pay.
California law also dictates at what point in the shift the breaks must be taken. Rest breaks must be taken near the middle of a four-hour work period, and meal breaks must be taken before the end of the fifth hour of a shift.
It is critical for California employers to record breaks because the state's laws are so specific, McDonald said. But he noted that employees should only "clock out" for meal breaks because rest breaks need to be paid.
Employers in the state face steep penalties if they don't comply with break laws. An employee is entitled to one hour of pay for each day a rest-period rule was violated and an additional one hour of pay for each day a meal-period rule wasn't followed.
Some states have less stringent requirements than California, but their laws still specify when breaks must be taken. For example, in Connecticut, employees who work at least seven and a half hours are generally entitled to a meal break. Employees must take their break after the first two hours and before the last two hours of work. Connecticut, however, doesn't have a rest break law.
Rhode Island employers must provide a 20-minute meal break to employees who work a six-hour shift and a 30-minute meal break to those who work an eight-hour shift.
Many states—including Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma and Virginia—have break rules for minors but not adults.
The rules not only vary from state to state but also from industry to industry in some jurisdictions, McDonald said.
For example, retail businesses in Maryland with 50 or more employees must provide a 15-minute rest break to employees who work between four and six hours or a 30-minute meal break to those who work longer hours.
In Missouri, coal miners are entitled to take an hour-long meal break.
Tips for Employers
Employers need to know what break requirements apply to the locations in which they operate, McDonald said.
Break policies should address the duration, timing and frequency of breaks; where they may be taken; what duties, if any, may be performed during a break; and whether the time is paid or unpaid.
Employers that operate in more than one jurisdiction should try to come up with a general multistate solution and ensure in areas with the highest litigation risk—such as California—that all best-practice protocols are implemented, Greenberg said.
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