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Are Employers Legally Required to Give Employees Breaks?

Different jobs come with different breaks--isn’t there a legal standard?

By
Adam Freedman
June 1, 2012

Are Employers Legally Required to Give Employees Breaks?

Today’s topic: are employers legally required to give employees breaks?

And now, your daily dose of legalese: This article does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader. In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer.  In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.

The podcast edition of this article was sponsored by Go to Meeting.  With this meeting service, you can hold your meetings over the Internet and give presentations, product demos and training sessions right from your PC. For a free, 45 day trial, visit GoToMeeting.com/podcast.

Are Employers Legally Required to Give Employees Breaks?

Bruce writes in to ask about a worker’s right to coffee breaks, otherwise known as “rest breaks.” Bruce works in construction, where he gets one 30-minute break and one 15-minute break. In his prior job--at a telephone call center--he used to get one 30-minute break and two 15-minute breaks. As Bruce points out, construction is harder work than answering phones, so intuitively, one would think that construction workers should get more breaks. How is it, he asks, that different segments of the workforce can have different breaks?

It’s a great question, but here’s the best part: it’s not that Bruce is lazy; after all, he’s a construction worker. But he tells me that he’s using up his break time to listen to Legal Lad! If he could get another break, he could download a few more episodes.

Bruce, the quick and dirty answer is that until I can persuade Congress to pass the Omnibus Legal Lad for Everyone bill, you’re at the mercy of state law. There are tremendous differences among state laws, but I’ll summarize some general principles in this episode. Chances are that you’ll have to squeeze your podcast listening into your existing breaks.

Are Employers Legally Required to Give Meal Breaks?

First, let’s look at Bruce’s 30-minute break. That would be considered his lunch break. Federal law does not require employers to set aside a certain amount of time for meal breaks. However, if an employer grants a short meal break-- generally 20 minutes or less--then the break must be paid. Likewise, if the employee is expected or allowed to work during the meal break, then that also must be paid. An employer can provide unpaid meal breaks if the break is 30 minutes or longer and the employee is completely relieved of his or her duties during the break. 

It’s a Matter of State Law

Beyond those principles, it’s mainly a matter of state laws and regulations. As it happens, many states do require meal breaks, usually around 30 minutes. But other states have no such requirement, meaning that lunchtime is a matter of private contract between employer and employee. And even when state law does require a certain meal break, such laws can be trumped by a collective bargaining agreement between a union and business.

Many States Mandate Employers Give Employees 10-Minute Breaks

Federal law does not require meal or rest breaks, but many states do

The same principles apply to rest breaks: there’s no federal requirement, but many states do mandate such breaks. The state laws that do exist tend to specify a 10-minute break that accrues every four hours or every eight hours, or something in-between. Coincidentally, Bruce writes that one of his co-workers told him that their rest break is only supposed to be 10 minutes; so possibly Bruce works in one of those 10-minute states.

More Strenuous Jobs Don’t Necessarily Come With More Breaks

So, why does Bruce get only one rest break in his tough construction job, whereas he used to get two rest breaks in his more sedentary telephone job? I’m not sure, but there’s no general principle that more strenuous jobs must come with more frequent breaks. In Bruce’s case, a number of possible explanations come to mind. It could be that his former job was located in a state with more generous rest break laws. Or maybe the hours at his old job were longer, thus entitling him to an additional rest break under state law. Or perhaps state law has nothing to do with it--maybe his old employer simply offered better contract terms. 

Remember, state laws are only a minimum requirement. Even if Bruce is not entitled to an additional break under state law, he can always try to negotiate one with his boss. Bruce: I’m not sure it will help your case to say that you’re listening to Legal Lad during your break, but you can certainly give it a try! 

Thank you for reading Legal Lad’s Quick and Dirty Tips for a More Lawful Life. Let me give a quick shout-out to two of my Quick and Dirty Tips colleagues: The Nutrition Diva and The Public Speaker have just released their one hundredth podcast episodes this week.  If you aren’t already a subscriber to these shows, check them out.  You can learn how to eat healthier and communicate more persuasively from these gurus.

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Coffee Break image from Shutterstock

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