Everyone Is Entitled to Paid Rest and Meal Breaks, Fact or Myth?

meal breaks at work

Everyone Is Entitled to Paid Rest and Meal Breaks, Fact or Myth?

I was recently reflecting on a speakerphone call I once received from a group of front of house employees asking, “Hypothetically, aren’t we entitled to a break and a lunch with pay?” Knowing that such a question is rarely “hypothetical, do” I provided the standard Department of Labor (DOL) response applicable for that particular state and reiterated the company policy break policy, but was left with a few of my own questions:

  • Do I have a manager requiring staff to work through their required breaks?
  • If so, how long has this been going on and how many staff members are affected?
  • Is the manager not familiar with our wage and hour break laws policies?
  • And if not, what can I do better to make sure that they are?

The call gave me the opportunity to take corrective action to make sure that our practices aligned with both the law and our company policy. But to my fellow HR leaders who may be a bit rusty on the labor laws around rest and meal breaks in your state, here is a little oil for that squeak:

To pay or not to pay

Most employers provide paid or unpaid rest and or meal breaks. Though this is a common practice, it is not actually required everywhere. While most employers have opted to provide paid or unpaid time for rest and meal breaks, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), does not require employers to provide rest or meal breaks. Only some states are required to offer rest and meal breaks. Therefore, if your company offers rest or meal breaks, you may not be legally obligated to compensate your employees for that time unless:

  • the law in your particular state requires paid rest or meal breaks (see “state rest/meal break laws” below)
  • breaks lasts 20 minutes or less; generally, these shorter breaks are considered part of an employee’s work day and must be paid, or
  • your employees have had to work through their break

Who is entitled to Rest Breaks?

While most employers allow rest breaks in increments of 10 to 15 minutes every 4 hours throughout their shift as a matter of policy few, states actually require employers to offer rest breaks. For laws in your particular state the Department of Labor provides a list of state rest break laws

Who is entitled to Meal Breaks?

Again, while common practice, approximately one-third of states actually require employers to provide a meal break to employees. Where meal breaks are provided, employees who generally work five to six hours consecutive hours during a shift must be allowed to take at minimum a 30-minute meal break, typically not less than three hours into their shift. For laws in your particular state, the Department of Labor provides a list of state meal break laws.

How to ensure compliance and state Labor Laws

Laws may change with new political administrations. Stay ahead of the “hypothetical” inquiries by knowing the wage and hour laws for your particular state;

  • make sure that your employee handbook contains that most up to date policy and DOL legislative information on rest and meal breaks in your state;
  • require routine wage and hour training of your managers and timekeepers that require them to attest to their participation;
  • Conduct periodic internal timekeeping audits for hourly staff to identify compliance gaps;
  • Work with managers and staff to ensure that employees that are allowed to take legally required breaks are able to do; and
  • have documented processes in place for employees that choose to take incremental rest breaks or waive meal breaks in the event of a DOL audit.

At the end of the day, be mindful when considering your break policies and when in doubt, default to the side of generosity. Your employees will be all the more engagement because of it.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of The HR Gazette or its team members.

Author: William J. Wiggins

William is an HR Business Partner for Eating Recovery Center who prides himself on providing sound direction and building collaborative relationships with leaders around Employee Engagement. His professional passion is helping partners manage their human assets with respect all things HR, including Employee Benefits, Onboarding, Diversity and Inclusion, and Employee Engagement, and EEO compliance. William has held positions in Health & Welfare Sales and Consulting, Employee Benefits and Human Resources serving healthcare, consulting, and retail organizations to include Mercer Human Resources Consulting, Williams-Sonoma, Inc., Kaiser Permanente, and Blue Cross Blue Shield. “I believe that “a true Human Resources leader is like a wizard that works feverishly behind the curtain pulling all the necessary levers to make sure that our human capital and organizations remain protected, compliant, and progressive”.

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