Employee Rest Breaks: What’s Required?

Author: Megan R Stell Date: December 03, 2007

NFIBlogo140.gifIt may come as a surprise, but the federal government does not have a law requiring business owners to give adult employees either rest periods or meal breaks during the workday. In fact, only 19 states specifically require rest or meal breaks for adults, while only seven states specifically require adult employees to be allowed a rest break and a meal break.

Although the federal government has no specific requirements for break times, the Fair Labor Standards Act states that if employers choose to provide employees with rest periods, they must be paid. In addition, if employers grant employees a meal break, they, too, must be paid, unless the break qualifies as a bona fide meal period.

What is a bona fide meal period?
Only bona fide meal periods qualify as an unpaid break. Such meal periods usually last at least 30 minutes or more. The U.S. Department of Labor deems a break to be a bona fide meal period when it is a period of time set aside for a regular meal. The break must also be long enough to be used for this purpose, and it must be an uninterrupted period during which the employee is completely relieved from his/her duties. During this period, the employee can neither be actively nor inactively working.

If an office employee is required to eat at his/her desk, or a factory employee is required to be at his/her machine while eating, it is considered working while eating. In that situation the criteria for a bona fide meal period is unmet and such time would require compensation. The U.S. Department of Labor does not require the employee be allowed to leave the premises during this time, provided he/she is otherwise completely freed from all work-related duties.

What is a rest period?
Rest periods are considered work time, and therefore, the employee must be paid. The typical length of such a period can be anywhere from five to 20 minutes and consists of coffee breaks and time for snacks. Rest periods may not be offset against other working times such as compensable waiting time or on-call time. Employers may require employees to take breaks to avoid violating specific state or municipal laws. However, employers cannot force employees to do certain things on break (i.e., drinking coffee during a coffee break, going to the bathroom during a bathroom break or eating during a meal break).

Bathroom breaks, unlike rest periods, are not privileges granted by the employer. In its Sanitation Standard, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration interpreted that employers must make toilet facilities available so employees can use them whenever they need to do so. Employers cannot impose unreasonable restrictions on employee use of these facilities.

How long can a break be?
For the most part, employers are prohibited from scheduling a break of more than one hour during the basic eight-hour workday. A lunch break may not be extended for more than one hour by allowing an employee to take a paid rest period prior to or immediately following the meal period.

How are break policies determined?
Employers often consider the following factors when creating or modifying policies for meal periods:

  • Any provisions existing in a negotiated agreement
  • The availability, convenience and distance of eating establishments
  • Whether employees must be present at work to fulfill their work requirements
  • Whether work must be performed on weekends, during overtime or at night

What are the benefits of offering rest periods?
The U.S. Department of Labor promotes rest periods as a benefit to the employer because they promote employee efficiency. In addition, extended or unusual shift periods may cause physical, mental and emotional stress, and rest periods help guard against fatigue, stress or a lack of concentration, potentially leading to operator errors, injuries and accidents.

What does my state say about meal and rest periods?
When the state laws differ from the Fair Labor Standards Act, the employer is required to comply with the standards that provide employees the greatest benefit. To avoid violating specific state or municipal laws, employers may require employees to take breaks.

However, only 19 states require adults to be given meal or rest periods. To find out if your state requires you to give meal periods, visit the U.S. Department of Labor's Web site at http://www.dol.gov/esa/programs/whd/state/meal.htm. To find out if your state requires rest periods visit http://www.dol.gov/esa/programs/whd/state/rest.htm.

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