When it comes to mandatory breaks and lunch for employees throughout the day, what do the Federal and State Labor laws actually say?


Working for long hours without a break or a chance to eat will obviously reduce the efficiency, productivity and morale of an employee. It seems that requiring breaks to eat and rest would be mandatory for all employers in the USA. However, believe it or not, the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) doesn’t require American employers to provide their employees with meal or rest breaks.


Although these breaks are not regulated federally, there are rules set in place at the state level. Some states not only require all employers to provide lunch breaks but also impose penalties for a failure to do so. Understanding your legal obligations so that you can make sure your employee’s rights are provided for is very important for running a successful business. Let’s take a look into mandatory breaks and lunch for employees to find out more.


Lunch Breaks: It Depends on the State

Lunch and meal breaks are largely a function of US state law, which means that each state will have slightly different laws. Make sure that you fully understand the specific laws for your state so that you can provide for your employees accordingly.


For example, Arizona doesn’t require private employers to provide employees with meal or rest breaks. Neither does Pennsylvania, except for employees under the age of 18 if they work for more than 5 continuous hours.


In California, non-exempt employees working for more than 5 hours per day must be provided with a 30 minute unpaid meal period. In New York, employees who work for more than 6 hours over a noon day meal period (from 11am to 2pm) must have at least a 30 minute break during that period. You can find a list of all state meal break laws on the Department of Labor website.


However, less than half of the states in the US require companies to provide their employees with a meal or rest break. In the states that do require employees to provide meal breaks, employees who work for more than five or six hours at a time are typically allowed a half hour to eat.


If an employee is on a break, the employer doesn’t have to pay them for that time unless the law of the state requires paid rest breaks. If the employee is not being paid for this time, it means that they must be completely relieved of all work duties. If the employee is answering phones, receiving deliveries or helping customers during their lunch break, then they have the right to be paid for that time.


Rest Breaks

There are only a few states in the USA that require employers to give their employees rest breaks throughout the working day. Usually what is required is a rest break of 10 minutes, with pay, for every period of four hours worked.


There are some states that allow employers the right to choose between offering their employees meal breaks or rest breaks. Also, some states only require that employers allow employees enough time on a break to use the restroom.


For example, in Minnesota employers must provide a paid adequate rest period within every four consecutive hours during their shift. It must be enough time for the employee to use the nearest restroom and any break of less than 20 minutes cannot be deducted from the overall time worked. When employees have short breaks from work, such as those lasting 5-20 minutes, federal law considers this as part of the work hours that the employee needs to be paid for.


Some states don’t specify the amount of time for breaks. For example, Vermont simply states that employees should be given “reasonable opportunities” during their working day to use the toilet and eat.


If you would like to see the rest break laws for every state, they are listed here on the Department of Labor’s website.


Company Policies and Unions

In the states where lunches and breaks are not stipulated by law, employers may still create policies that allow for break time during a shift. After all, employees will be more motivated, rested and productive if they are allowed to take a break, eat lunch and recharge their energy.


Often union collective bargaining agreements are involved in providing breaks from work. If an employee is in a trade labor union, they probably have rules regarding breaks built into the collective bargaining agreement.


Breaks for Nursing Mothers

What about female employees who are nursing their babies? The Affordable Care Act requires reasonable breaks for employees so that they can express breast milk for a nursing child for up to one year after the child’s birth. The timing of these breaks is not specified, the requirement is simply for the employee to be given breaks “each time such employee has need to express the milk.”


Sometimes the laws of the specific states go into more detail when it comes to breaks for breastfeeding mothers. For example, the laws of the State of Tennessee state that the break time for this purpose should, if possible, coincide with the break time already allowed for the employee. Also, many states specify that the employer is not required to provide the employee with a break to express breast milk if doing so would significantly disrupt the operations of the working environment.


Also, the employer must provide a location in which to do this other than a bathroom which is private and shielded from view. The employer may also need to provide a refrigerator where the breast milk can be stored and access to a sink with running water. To learn more about the specific break requirements for nursing mothers, you can read this information from the US Department of Labor.


Different Rules for Younger Workers

It is the case in several states that younger workers are subject to different rules when it comes to meal or rest breaks. In many of the states where breaks are required for workers of legal age, the rules for workers under the age of 18 are more strict.


For example, in Delaware employees over the age of 18 must have a 30 minute meal break after working 7.5 hours. Employees under the age of 18 must have a 30 minute break if they work for 5 hours.


Some states will have special rules for employees under the age of 18, while others will have rules only for minors 15 or younger. If you employ younger workers at your organization, make sure that you are aware of the laws concerning them and how they differ from those for workers over the age of 18.