If you’ve ever wondered why your employer makes you take forced meal breaks without pay, here’s why.
There is no Federal wage and hour law that mandates meal periods for employees, such as dinner and lunch breaks. However, states may enact their own wage and hour laws that do mandate meal periods and other work breaks, as several states have.
In states that mandate meal periods for employees, employers must give meal breaks whether or not employees want them; otherwise, employers face the consequences of violating state wage and hour laws or related regulations.
In the absence of or to expand upon such state laws, collective bargaining agreements may contractually mandate that employers grant meal periods to union-protected employees. If employers don’t give meal breaks as required under union contracts, then those employers face the consequences of breaching their contracts.
In other words, your employer likely doesn’t make you take forced meal breaks just to be mean; it’s more likely that your employer is essentially forced to force you to take meal breaks or potentially suffer the legal consequences.
Of course, your employer can’t make you eat while you’re on a forced meal break. However, under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the “main” wage and hour law at the Federal level, your employer may make you stay on the premises while you’re on a forced meal break (unless a state law or your union contract indicates otherwise).
Additionally, the FLSA and equivalent state laws permit your employer to make you take your meal breaks without pay. Employers are required to pay employees only for work time and rest periods, such as relatively short bathroom breaks.
If your employer does make you take forced meal breaks without pay, then, under the FLSA and state equivalents, they must be bona fide meal periods, meaning that your employer may not make you work without pay for any part of your meal breaks. In fact, your employer would be wise to refuse to allow you to work even voluntarily without pay during your meal breaks.
Update 4/17/12: In the case of Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court of San Diego, the California Supreme Court ruled that employers in the state don’t have to ensure that employees do not work during their meal breaks.