Everyone has to eat, and sometimes we all need a break. Seems simple, but the laws governing workplace breaks can be confusing. Federal law sets some standards for breaks as well as whether those breaks should be paid. However, where a state law also exists, the higher standard applies.
The federal Fair Labor Standards Act governs rest and meal breaks and applies to all hourly employees. Under the FLSA, these employees can receive short paid rest periods, usually from five to 20 minutes.
Meal breaks typically last 30 minutes or more and are usually not paid. However, if the employee is not completely removed from performing any duties while eating, the meal counts as compensated time.
Most states don’t require paid rest breaks, but those that do typically require a 10-minute break for each four-hour period worked. Each state applies its law to different classes of employees, and has its own exclusions. The Department of Labor Web site provides a breakdown of the state laws here: http://www.dol.gov/esa/whd/state/rest.htm.
Twenty-one states require meal breaks for employees in certain industries, generally demanding 30 minutes for those working a certain number of hours. There are many exclusions to these laws, so you should check your state’s laws here: http://www.dol.gov/esa/whd/state/meal.htm.
As an employer, you can fashion your own rest and meal break policies as long as they are within state and federal law. You should consider making that policy available to everyone in an employee handbook, which each employee should acknowledge as having read.
Executive Director, Small Business Legal Center
National Federation of Independent Business