Many employers give employees breaks during the day to eat lunch, use the restroom, smoke, make personal calls, and so on. However, this isn't required by the Fair Labor Standards Act, the federal law that governs wages and hours. Some states require these breaks; others don't.
If you get meal or rest breaks, your employer has to pay you for that time only if:
- your state law requires paid breaks
- you have to work during your break, or
- your break lasts for 20 minutes or less (these shorter periods must be paid, because they're considered part of your work day).
State Rest Break Laws
Only a small number of states -- California, Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington -- currently require employers to offer rest breaks during the work day. In Vermont and Minnesota, employees are entitled only to enough break time to use the rest room. The other states generally require employers to offer a paid ten minute break for every four hours worked. In a few states, employers can choose between giving either rest breaks or a meal break.
State Meal Break Laws
Fewer than half the states require employers to provide meal breaks. In states that require these breaks, employees are typically entitled to take half an hour off to eat lunch. Some states require meal breaks only after the employee has worked a certain number of hours or only for employees who work a certain number of hours in a full work day.
No state requires employers to pay employees for their meal breaks. However, if you have to do any work while you are eating, then it's no longer a break and you're entitled to pay. For example, if you have to watch the phones or the front desk while you have lunch, you should be paid for that time.
Younger Workers Get All the Breaks
Many states have laws that provide special labor protections to minors. In states that already require meal or rest breaks, an employer might be required to offer more frequent breaks to minors, for example. Some states that don't give adult employees the right to a meal or rest break do offer this protection to minors. Some states give extra break rights to all employees under the age of 18; others provide these rights only to employees who are 15 and younger.
Getting Legal Help
If you are required to work through your breaks or aren't getting the breaks to which you're entitled under state law, consider consulting with an experienced employment lawyer. A lawyer can quickly assess whether your employer is breaking the law and, if so, what you can do about it.