Workplace Rights

Weekly (12/7/20)

Topic of the Week  Meal and Rest Breaks

Surprisingly, there are no federal laws requiring meal and rest breaks. This area of the law has been left mostly to states with only 20 requiring meal breaks and 9 requiring rest breaks. However, most employers do provide meal breaks and may be required to provide breaks for specific religious or health reasons. 

1. My employer doesn't give me any rest breaks during my eight-hour shift. Is this against the law?

Many employers also choose to give their employees rest breaks, even if the law does not require them to do so. However, you may not know that the federal law governing labor standards, the Fair Labor Standards Act, does not require employers to give their employees any breaks from work for any reason. (Whether an employee is paid for the breaks that he or she is allowed to take may be determined by federal law; see question 5 for further information) .

Only 7 states have provisions requiring that employers give their employees rest breaks. Employers may also be bound to provide breaks by collective bargaining agreements (in unionized workplaces) or other state labor regulations.

If you work in one of the states where there is no law, then your employer is only voluntarily giving you rest breaks if you have them. Your employer is free to revoke that policy at any time, or may make any appropriate modifications or limitations it chooses.

2. My employer gives me a meal break, but does not pay me for it. Is this legal?

Under the FLSA, meal breaks are generally not considered work time, and are not required to be paid, as long as two criteria are met:

  • The employee is completely relieved from duty for the purposes of eating regular meals. 
  • The meal period is 30 minutes or more (unless special conditions exist.)

Employee are not considered "completely relieved from duty" if they are required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating. For example, an office employee who is required to eat at her desk or a factory worker who is required to be at his machine is working while eating.

For employees not covered by the FLSA, meal and break provisions may be covered under state law, if the employee lives in one of the few states with laws requiring meal and break periods.

3. My employer allows me two rest breaks during the day, but does not pay me for them. Is this legal?

Under the FLSA, rest periods of short duration (for example, five to twenty minutes) are considered to make employees\' work more efficient, and are customarily paid for as working time. They must be counted as hours worked, and cannot be offset against other time for which workers must be paid, such as waiting time or on-call time.

If you extend your break beyond the time authorized by your employer, your employer may deduct the excess time from your hours worked, as long as

  • the employer has expressly and unambiguously communicated to the employee that the authorized break may only last for a specific length of time,
  • that any extension of the break is contrary to the employer\'s rules, and
  • that any extension of the break will be punished.

Your employer may also deduct time from your hours worked if the extra break was used for the purpose of expressing breast milk. Though employers are required to offer breaks to nursing mothers for this purpose, they do not need to be paid breaks.

For employees not covered by the FLSA, meal and break provisions may be covered under state law, if the employee lives in one of the few states with laws requiring meal and break periods.

Thought of the Week

" To help prevent transmission among healthcare workers, hospitals and clinics should stagger breaks, rearrange seating to maintain physical distance, place signs on tables and rooms indicating how many can safely use the space at once, regularly disinfect surfaces, avoid sharing food and utensils and ensure easy access to soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer. It may also be necessary to provide staff-only dining areas if cafeterias have insufficient space to accommodate staff, patients and visitors. Outdoor dining is also an option, weather permitting, and tents can be an option to help create new dining spaces."

–Michael Calderwood, MD, associate chief quality officer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H.

Weekly Comic by Jerry King

Weekly Comic by Jerry King

Blog of the Week

Top Five News Headlines

    List of the Week

    from Economic Policy Institute

    Wages for the top 1% skyrocketed 160% since 1979 while the share of wages for the bottom 90% shrunk

    EPI's data shows that the top 1% saw their wages grow by 160%. Meanwhile, wages for the top 0.1% grew more than twice as fast?up a spectacular 345.2%! In contrast, those in the bottom 90% had annual wages grow by just 26.0% from 1979 to 2019.
    Put another way, the vast majority of working people across the United States, the bottom 90%, earned $30,880 a year in annual wages in 1979, up slightly to $38,923 in 2019. But the top 0.1% realized a much steeper increase: collecting $648,725 in wages in 1979 and a staggering average annual wage of nearly $2.9 million in 2019.
    This unceasing growth of wage inequality undercuts wage growth for the bottom 90% and reaffirms the urgent need to place a policy making priority on rebuilding worker power and generating robust wage growth for the vast majority of people throughout our country.


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