Lunch breaks. They seem like something you should have, that any employer should grant. But are they really required by law? And do employers have to pay you for them? The answer isn't quite so straightforward.
Do companies have to give you a lunch break?
There is no federal law that mandates that employers must give their employees lunch breaks or any specific type of timed break during the workday. But there are many state laws that govern the provision of lunch breaks. There are also some legalities that spell out the terms of payment during breaks that employers do provide for employees under federal law.
Federal meal and break requirements.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), as we have discussed, does not require employers to give employees lunch or other breaks during the workday, although some states, as outlined below, have created laws regarding breaks (meal or rest) for their state residents.
However, the FLSA does legally mandate certain terms for when employers do give their employees breaks, lunch or otherwise. For example, if the break does not extend beyond 20 minutes (such as a short breather or rest time), the employer must pay the worker at their normal rate for that period of time. But if they provide an employee with a longer break for lunch or other non-work activities, then they are not required to pay them for that time (usually, this is if the break lasts at least half an hour).
Still, non-exempt employees — generally those who receive an hourly rate rather than a salary — must receive compensation for any hours worked. That means that if an employee works through a lunch break, including those lasting 30 minutes or longer, then they must be paid for that time. This is true whether or not the employer has asked the employee to do the work. Even if they work through their lunch break voluntarily, they must be paid for their time.
An employer can, however, mandate that you not work during your defined lunch break. If that’s the case, then they won’t be obligated to pay you, even if you worked during that time anyway.
If you work in a state with laws regarding lunch or other types of breaks from work, then those laws inform your rights about whether or not you’re entitled to these breaks.
What states require a lunch break?
The below states have laws that concern breaks and break times. Some are specific to minors, while others govern all employees.
State laws in Alabama only concern employees under the age of 16. Younger employees who have work shifts of five consecutive hours are entitled to a break of at least 30 minutes during the day.
In Alaska, employees ages 14 through 17 who work at least five consecutive hours must be entitled to breaks of at least 30 minutes. These breaks cannot occur within the first hour and a half of their shift or after the beginning of the last hour of their shift.
California requires employers to allow employees who work for more than five consecutive hours to take a break of at least 30 minutes. If the employer is in the film industry, in some cases, employees may work at least six hours for this law to apply. Certain non-exempt employees are entitled to 10-minute paid breaks for every four hours they have worked.
Employees covered by the Colorado Overtime and Minimum Pay Standards Order are entitled to 30-minute, uninterrupted meal breaks when their shifts exceed five hours, to be taken at least one hour after their shift starts and one hour before it ends. Employers must also provide 10-minute, compensated rest breaks for every four hours worked.
Connecticut law mandates the provision of meal breaks of at least 30 minutes, as long as they have worked for at least 7.5 hours consecutively. These breaks should be taken after the first two hours of a work shift and prior to two hours before the end.
Workers ages 18 and over are entitled to unpaid meal breaks of at least 30 minutes, assuming they are working at least 7.5 hours in a given day, to be taken after two hours into the workday and two hours before the end of the work schedule
. This also applies to workers under age 18 who are working at least five consecutive hours. Some exceptions apply.
Employees under 18 must be able to take meal breaks of at least 30 minutes if they are working for more than four consecutive hours in a given workday.
Employees ages 14 or 15 are entitled to take a meal break of 30 minutes or more if they have worked for five consecutive hours in a given workday.
Any employees who work for shifts of at least 7.5 hours must be allowed to take an unpaid meal break of at least 20 minutes, to be taken no later than five hours after the beginning of their schedule. They are entitled to one meal break for every 7.5-hour period worked.
In Indiana, employees under the age of 18 are entitled to break time (to be taken in one or two periods) of at least 30 minutes when they work six or more consecutive hours.
Workers under the age of 16 who work for shifts of at least five consecutive hours must be allowed to take breaks of at least 30 minutes.
Workers may take breaks of half an hour, to be taken between the third and fifth hours of their workday. Some shorter periods may be granted in special circumstances.
Employees under the age of 18 must be granted an unpaid break (time is not specified) if they work for five consecutive hours in a given workday.
Workers are entitled to breaks of at least 30 minutes when they work for more than six consecutive hours, except in cases of emergency.
Employees are entitled to 15-minute breaks per every 4-6 consecutive hours worked or a 30-minute break for work exceeding six consecutive hours. When employees work for at least eight hours, they are entitled to both a 30-minute break and an additional 15-minute break for every additional four hours worked.
Employees working more than six hours in one calendar day must be permitted to have a 30-minute break.
Michigan law mandates employers to grant 30-minute breaks to employees who are working for more than five consecutive hours.
Employees must be given "sufficient unpaid time" when they work for at least eight consecutive hours.
Nebraska state law requires employers to give employees at least half an hour for a lunch break for every eight-hour shift
they have work. Specifically, breaks are to be taken off-premises.
According to Nevada state law, when employees work for at least eight consecutive hours, they must be entitled to take a break lasting at least half an hour. Employees may also be allowed to take breaks of at least 10 minutes for every four hours they've worked.
21. New Hampshire
According to New Hampshire law, employers are required to grant employees who work more than five consecutive hours a 30-minute meal break. In some cases, employees may eat while working and are permitted to do so by employers.
22. New Jersey
New Jersey law stipulates that employees under age 18 have at least a 30-minute break after they have worked for at least five consecutive hours.
23. New York
Factory workers are entitled to a one-hour break.
24. North Carolina
Employees who are age 14 or 15 must be allowed to take a 30-minute break if they are working shifts of more than five hours.
25. North Dakota
When two or more employees are on duty, employees are entitled to a break of half an hour for shifts that exceed five hours.
Employees under the age of 18 are entitled to a 30-minute break when they work for at least five consecutive hours.
Workers who are under the age of 16 are granted 30-minute breaks when they work at least five consecutive hours or one total hour of rest time when they have worked for at least eight consecutive hours.
When their employees work shifts of at least six hours, employers are required to give them an uninterrupted, unpaid meal period of at least 30 minutes.
Employees ages 14-17 are entitled to take meal breaks of at least 30 minutes when they work five consecutive hours.
30. Rhode Island
All employees are guaranteed a meal break of at least 20 minutes during a six-hour work shift or 30 minutes during an eight-hour work shift.
Employers are required to provide meal breaks of at least half an hour when they work for periods of at least six consecutive hours. This break cannot take place within the first hour of their work schedule.
Utah grants employees who are under the age of 18 meal breaks of 30 minutes or more when they work five consecutive hours, along with rest breaks of at least 10 minutes for every three consecutive hours they have worked.
Employees must be given the "reasonable opportunity" to eat and use bathroom facilities.
Employees ages 14 or 15 are entitled to meal breaks of at least 30 minutes if they work at least five consecutive hours.
All employers aside from those in the agricultural industry are required to grant employees age 18 and older a meal break of at least 30 minutes for shifts of at least five consecutive hours and paid breaks of 10+ minutes for every four-hour period they have worked.
36. West Virginia
Any employee who works at least six consecutive hours at times dictated by their employer. These breaks must last at least 20 minutes. Meanwhile, employees under the age of 16 must have breaks of at least 30 minutes for shifts of at least five consecutive hours.
Employees under age 18 must be relieved of their work responsibilities for a meal break lasting at least 30 minutes when they are scheduled to work for more than six hours in a particular workday.
Can an employer tell you when to take a lunch break?
While no employer can force a lunch break on an employee per se, they can tell you that you must take a break away from your desk and not complete work during this time. This prevents them from having to pay employees for time worked when they aren’t supposed to be doing so. If the employer has explicitly stated that work during mandated breaks is prohibited, you will probably not be compensated for the time worked.
Should an employee refuse to take a lunch break and they are entitled to it by state law, then the employer should remind the employee of their right and thoroughly document their refusal to do so. This can play a critical role in the case of potential lawsuits and disputes in the future, should they occur.
Do I have to be paid for my lunch break?
As we have touched on, federal law dictates that employers are not required to pay employees for lunch breaks that last at least 30 minutes. The exception is when employees perform work during these longer breaks. If an employee is authorized to work and does so for breaks lasting beyond a half an hour, then they must be compensated at their regular rate for that time.
Shorter breaks, usually those lasting around 20 minutes (not exceeding 30 minutes) must be compensated as per federal law.
Look up your state laws to find out the lunch-break rules regarding your particular employer and area. If state laws mandate compensation during lunch breaks, then your employer must defer to these rules.
Bear in mind that many employers choose to give their employers lunch breaks and sometimes even pay them for this time. If you’re not sure about the rules at your workplace, then check with your human resources (HR) representative or manager for clarification.
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