Did you know that there is no federal law mandating meal or rest breaks for adults when they’re at work? It seems contrary to what one would think, but it’s actually true. Whether or not adult workers get breaks to eat or rest during the day is controlled by the states.
Given that not all states have regulations pertaining to this, you may not have to offer these to your employees, depending on where you live. Of course, if you live in a state that requires meal periods or rest breaks or both, you need to adhere to those rules to avoid problems. Otherwise, it is at your discretion to provide meal periods or rest breaks or both.
Breaks provided when not required by law
While there is no federal law requiring meal and rest breaks, there are still rules in place if an employer provides these at their own discretion. Essentially all breaks that last five to 20 minutes are paid, whether it’s for rest or a meal. This time would also count toward overtime for the week. If an employer’s policy is clear regarding the duration of the break, and clear that extensions of that break will be punished and/or not paid, then unauthorized extra break time could be unpaid.
In terms of a bona fide meal period in which the time taken by the employee would be unpaid, the duration of the break should be at least 30 minutes and the employee must be fully relieved of all job duties, according to the federal government wage and hour laws. This leaves a bit of a gray area if a meal break is, say, 25 minutes. We recommend that only meal breaks lasting 30 minutes or more be unpaid unless special circumstances exist.
It is important that employers clearly communicate meal period and rest break policies, ideally in writing through a policy manual. The policies should distinguish between meal and rest breaks, define expectations regarding the duration of each, and explain the consequences for not following the rules.
State laws: meal periods
The following states have specific meal period requirements: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia.
In general, these laws mandate at least 30 minutes for an unpaid meal period that must occur within the first five hours of work. Employees have to be relieved of their job duties and, in general, can leave the practice premises during this time. Employees are also not allowed to shorten workdays (at the start or end of the day) for the meal period instead of taking the break during the middle of the day. Of course, some states are more restrictive than others.
Employers face penalties and fines for noncompliance. For example, in California, there is a penalty of one hour of pay for all missed meal periods, and additional fines can be added depending on the circumstances.
State laws: rest breaks
The following states have specific rest break requirements: California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.
In general, these laws mandate at least a 10-minute break for every four hours of work. Employees have to be relieved of their job duties and have to be paid for their time. In some states, such as California, employees also have to be allowed to leave the practice premises. Rest breaks cannot be added to the meal period (if applicable) and cannot be used to shorten the workday. As with meal periods, some states are more restrictive than others.
Penalties and fines will be applied for noncompliance. For example, in California, there is a penalty of one hour of pay for missed rest breaks and additional fines can be added, depending on the circumstances.
Doctors should never make assumptions about laws. If you’re in a state that requires meal periods or rest breaks or both, become familiar with the requirements and follow the rules. The penalties can be fierce if you don’t. Now that you know the truth, you are out of excuses.