Federal Law Regarding Lunch Breaks


Introduction

One may feel numb or tired working continuously for long hours without having any breaks.  This will obviously reduce the productivity and efficiency of an employee.  Most of the employers may feel happy by seeing their employees working continuously without taking any breaks.  Is it allowed for an employee to take time off from his/her job?  Certainly yes!  A lunch or a meal break is an approved period of time under the federal law.  This Federal law, the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act), permit employees to eat or engage in permitted personal activities.

Legal Right of Employees during Work Hours

There is a federal rule that says a break has to be at least 20 minutes long to be a paid one.  Under federal rules only, employers do not need to give most employees lunch or other types of breaks at all. 

Lunch and meal breaks are largely a function of state law, which means different states have different rules.  Some states not only require the employer to provide lunch and other breaks, but also imposes very specific penalties for failure to do so.  Understanding your legal obligations as an employer as well as your employees’ legal rights is key to running a successful business.

As an employer, there are two guiding pieces of legislation on employment hours that you should familiarize yourself with – the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  Both provide guidance for employers on the rules and regulations that govern employee rights and labor laws with regard to vacation and sick leave, meal and other breaks, as well as flex time.  According to a study, the amount of time people are taking for lunch breaks in the United States is shrinking, thereby making the term “lunch hour” a myth.  Some employers request the lunch to be taken at their work station or not offering lunch breaks at all.  Many employees are taking shorter lunch breaks in order to compete with other employees for a better position, and to show their productivity.

In some places, such as the state of California, meal breaks are legally mandated. Penalties can be severe for failing to adequately staff one’s business premises so that all employees can rotate through their mandatory meal and rest breaks.  For example, on April 16, 2007, the Supreme Court of California, in Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc. 40 Cal. 4th 1094 (2007), held that employers must allow their employees to take time off for lunch or meal breaks.  In Murphy, a former store manager sued Kenneth Cole, a small upscale retail clothing store, claiming violations of wage and hour law and asserting that he was improperly classified as an exempt employee.  After leaving his employment, Murphy filed a complaint with the labor commissioner.  The labor commissioner awarded Murphy unpaid overtime, interest and a waiting time penalty.  The employer appealed. On appeal, Murphy added a claim for unpaid meal and rest periods, pay stub violations and interest and attorney’s fees.  The trial court awarded Murphy unpaid overtime, payments for missed meal and rest periods and pay stub violations, waiting time penalties and pre-judgment interest plus attorney’s fees.  The court of appeal affirmed the lower court’s judgment that Murphy was a non-exempt employee and thus entitled to overtime.  The court of appeal reversed the judgment to the extent the trial court issued an award for missed meal and rest periods for pay stub violations as such claims were not raised before the labor commissioner.  In addition the court of appeal held that the additional payment for meal/rest period violations is a penalty not a wage, and therefore is subject to a one year statute of limitations.  The California Supreme Court, however reversed and held that the additional hour pay provided for in California Labor Code §226.7 constitutes a wage premium payment, which is subject to a three year statute of limitations, not a penalty.

The aftermath of this decision is that, employers now face additional liability when they fail to properly pay employees for not only wages, but also for not providing meal and rest periods as required under the wage hour orders.  One or two missed meal periods, and/or a missed meal period, provides for each one hour of additional pay.

Legal Right of Employers during Work Hours 

Although employer’s rights are considered wide with regard to allowing lunch and meal breaks, still they cannot be held liable for actions arising during unpaid lunch or meal breaks on certain circumstances.  When employers allow at least 20 or 30 minutes as breaks for their employees they are free from their liabilities in two different ways.  Firstly, they won’t be penalized for disallowing unpaid breaks for their employees (which is a standard set in labor laws).  Secondly, employers will not be personally liable to pay compensatory benefits for the liabilities incurred by their employees during the course of unpaid lunch breaks.    In EMB Contracting Corp., 2008 NYWCLR (LRP) LEXIS 29 (NYWCLR (LRP) 2008), a Workers’ Compensation Board panel affirmed the workers’ compensation law judge’s decision disallowing the claim of a roofer who was hit by a car while returning from his lunch break.  In EMB Contracting Corp., while an employee returning from his lunch break, the claimant was struck by a car and taken to the hospital.  The motor vehicle accident occurred approximately two blocks away from the work site.  In rejecting the claimant’s argument that the accident occurred in the course of his employment, the panel noted that although the employer paid for the half hour lunch break and told the claimant when he should take his break, the employer did not specify where the claimant should eat his lunch. The claimant submitted no evidence of special circumstances that would render the claim compensable, such as a direction on the part of the employer, performance of a duty during the lunch hour, or a lunch period at an odd time caused by something connected with the work.     

Therefore, it was held by the court that during the lunch hours in the absence of special circumstances, such as a direction on the part of the employer, performance of some duty during the lunch hour, or a lunch period at an odd time caused by something connected with the work, an employee is not considered to be in the course of his employment when an accident occurs during his lunch hour.

Misuse of lunch breaks by employees will force their employers to terminate their employment.  Moreover, in Grusendorf v. City of Oklahoma City, 816 F.2d 5390 (1987), after signing employment agreement to refrain from smoking during first year of employment, a firefighter was terminated for drawing three puffs on unpaid lunch break after “a particularly stressful day” during the first year of his employment.  Firefighter brought suit based on violation of right to privacy and liberty.  Therefore the United States court of appeals for the federal circuit Court held that, although the court ruled in favor of the employer, the court based its reasoning on the employer’s status as a state agency and applied only a rational scrutiny standard to the employer’s no-smoking policy.  This reasoning may not apply to private employers in part because the 10th Circuit indicated that there is protected liberty interest within the 14th Amendment that protects the right of employees to smoke during non-working hours. Grusendorf, 816 F.2d at 543.

In addition, the Tennessee Supreme Court in Wait v. Travelers Indem. Co., 240 S.W.3d 220 (Tenn. 2007), held that injuries sustained during an employee’s lunch break were compensable under the state’s workers’ compensation act.

Employees are not permitted to consume alcohol during their working hours which includes lunch breaks or rest breaks.

Work Break and Meal State Laws

The 22 states listed below have laws that include some sort of provisions for work breaks. Of the 22, only 19 specifically require a rest or meal break for adults, while only 7 specifically require a rest break in addition to a meal break for adults.

California
Colorado
Connecticut
Delaware
Illinois
Kentucky
Maine
  Massachusetts
Minnesota
Nebraska
Nevada
New Hampshire
New York
New Jersey
  North Dakota
Oregon
Rhode Island
Tennessee
Vermont
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin

But there’s still room for hope for lunch breaks in different states. Many states have passed laws regarding lunch break requirements. If you work in one of those states, your employer has to make sure that he complies with the state regulations.

Here is a summary of the individual state lunch labor laws. Note that not all industries are required to comply with these regulations in each state.

California – 1/2 hour after 5 hours worked, unless shift is only 6 hours

Colorado – 1/2 hour after 5 hours worked, unless shift is only 6 hours

Connecticut – if shift is 7.5 hours, 1/2 hour lunch after first 2 hours but before last 2 hours

Delaware – if shift is 7.5 hours, 1/2 hour lunch after first 2 hours but before last 2 hours

Illinois – required for hotel room attendants only

Kentucky – reasonable meal period between 3rd and 5th hour of shift

Maine – 1/2 hour after 6 consecutive hours

Massachusetts – 1/2 hour, if work is more than 6 hours

Minnesota – reasonable period, if shift is 8+ consecutive hours

Nebraska – 1/2 hour, off premises, at suitable lunch time

Nevada – 1/2 hour, if work is 8 consecutive hours

New Hampshire – 1/2 hour, after 5 consecutive hours – unless employee can eat while working

New York – 1/2 hour, if shift is more than 6 hours

North Dakota – 1/2 hour, if work is more than 5 hours

Oregon – 1/2 hour

Rhode Island – 20 minutes for 6 hour shift; 30 minutes for 8 hour shift

Tennessee – 1/2 hour, if shift is 6 hours

Washington – 1/2 hour, for 5 hour shift

West Virginia – 20 minutes, if work is more than 6 consecutive hours

Wisconsin- ½ hour after 6 consecutive hours’ work

New Mexico-  ½ hour

Guam- ½ hour, after 5 hours, except when workday will be completed in 6 hours or less and there is mutual employer/employee consent to waive meal period. Time worked is not considered unless nature of work prevents relief from duty.

Puerto Rico- 1 hour, after end of 3rd but before beginning of 6th consecutive hour worked. Double-time pay required for work during meal hour or fraction thereof.

If you have questions about your individual state, you should contact your state’s department of labor. 

If your state isn’t listed, it means that there is no state law that specifically addresses work breaks or meals.

Even if your state doesn’t have a law that specifically addresses work breaks or meals, it might have related regulations or guidelines that do.  Alternately or additionally, your municipality might have a work break law or related orders, regulations or guidelines. To find out, start by contacting the relevant state labor department.

Employers may grant more work breaks or those of longer duration than state or municipal laws require, but not fewer or of shorter duration.

In states and municipalities where there are no laws or related regulations or guidelines with work break or meal provisions, under the FLSA work break and meal periods are a matter of voluntary agreement between employers and employees or employers and unions.

If your employer is violating work break or meal provisions in state laws or the FLSA, the relevant state labor department might help you to right the wrong.

Payment for Break and Meal Periods: Under 29 CFR 785.18 (Code of Federal Regulations) breaks of five to twenty minutes must be paid by the employer while, for a meal period to be unpaid, has to be at least 30 minutes uninterrupted by work. Note again, however, that federal law does not mandate breaks or meal periods.

Conclusion

If you are human, you have to eat.  If you have a job, you will probably work several hours during the day, most likely across the normal lunch time.  Thus, you probably wonder about lunch labor laws.

Hourly workers are most concerned about the law regarding their lunch breaks, but a recent study found that 90% of salaried workers held an hourly job at one time in their life.  The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require that meal or rest breaks be given. Short breaks (five to 20 minutes), however, which are given to employees as a matter of company policy, are generally considered to be compensable and to count toward the 40-hour workweek.  That policy must be clear and specific on taking breaks, and employees are not entitled to extend these breaks and receive compensation without prior authorization. Companies that offer short breaks as a matter of policy should be clear and specific about time and frequency, and must then count that time as part of the regular workday.

Those states which do not have any laws regarding breaks or meal periods, then those benefits are a matter of agreement between the employer and the employee.  Failing to adhere to state laws concerning breaks can be costly.  Iliadis v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 191 N.J. 88, 922 A.2d 710, 2007 LEXIS 599 (N.J. 2007).  In Wal-Mart, the subject of the issue was a several multimillion dollar lawsuits for failing to give workers mandated breaks and for forcing workers to work off the clock. If a lunch break is considered compensable because the employee is not completely relieved of duties, the extra time worked may be compensable as overtime under federal law.  Furthermore, the New Jersey Supreme Court, in Wal-Mart, permitted two former employees of Wal Mart to proceed with a state wide class action on behalf of some 72,000 employees in which the class representative allege that they were denied required rest and meal breaks, and were forced to work “off the clock”.