Work Breaks and Meals
This page covers work breaks and meals only for adult employees. Child labor laws vary by state, so work break and meal provisions for young employees might differ from those explained below.
When this page refers to the general term work breaks or rest breaks, it means what employees often refer to as snack, coffee, smoke, restroom, toilet or bathroom breaks. When this page refers to meals or meal breaks, it means what employees often refer to as dinner or lunch breaks.
Work Break and Meal Laws
There are no Federal labor or employment laws that require employers to set specific intervals or even make time for employees to take work breaks or eat meals.
However, the Federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ("health care reform bill" passed in March 2010) requires employers to reasonably provide work breaks in private areas for nursing mothers who are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) "to express breast milk."
Fewer than half the states have laws that require employers to make time for employees to eat meals. Even fewer states have laws that require employers to make time for employees to take work breaks. (See Work Breaks and Meals State Laws below.)
Although there are no Federal and few state laws that require employers to give bathroom breaks, the Federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has interpreted a section in its Sanitation Standard, to mean that it "requires employers to make toilet facilities available so that employees can use them when they need to do so. The employer may not impose unreasonable restrictions on employee use of the facilities."
OSHA further clarified its interpretation in a letter dated April 23, 2003. Additionally, one of OSHA's Safety and Health Guides entitled "Extended/Unusual Work Shifts" recommends that "Additional break periods and meals should be provided when shifts are extended past normal work periods."
Even though giving rest or meal breaks is not required under Federal labor law and the labor laws in most states, many employers do so anyway in accordance with industry (and OSHA) standards. Industry-standard breaks typically range from 5 to 30 minutes each.
If employers do voluntarily give rest or meal breaks in states without related law provisions, then the work breaks are at least somewhat regulated by the Federal FLSA.
Under the FLSA, employers who do have a policy of giving one or more short rest breaks of about 20 minutes or less, must pay employees for their time while on such work breaks.
In other words, the FLSA does not require employers to give rest breaks of any length. But, if employers give short rest breaks anyway, under the FLSA the work breaks are counted as time for which employers must pay employees. If authorized rest breaks extend work hours into overtime, under the FLSA employers must pay the overtime to eligible employees. Meal breaks are the only exception to these rules. More information about meal breaks is below.
Employers do not have to pay employees for taking unauthorized work breaks or extending authorized work breaks without permission, if employers have previously made it clear that doing so is not allowed and punishable. For example, a clear statement in an employee policy manual might be considered by a court to be sufficient.
The Federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or state equivalents might indirectly require employers to reasonably grant or occasionally extend work breaks for disabled workers, such as bathroom breaks. Employers must reasonably accommodate workers who are protected by the ADA.
States may enact laws that have the same or better work break provisions than those in the FLSA. But, as previously indicated, only a few states (listed below) have laws that include provisions for rest breaks or any other type of work breaks.
Under the FLSA, if employers do give meal breaks voluntarily, they do not have to pay employees while they're on such work breaks. However, the breaks must be bona fide meal breaks for employers to be relieved of break pay.
For example, an employer who voluntarily offers a daily meal break by policy, but who does not pay employees while they're on their meal break, must allow employees to take the whole break without working. Otherwise, it is not a bona fide meal break under the FLSA. Instead, it counts as work time, for which the employer must pay employees.
In other words, employers can't simply label work breaks as meal, dinner or lunch breaks to evade paying employees while they're on such breaks. Employers must allow employees to take meal breaks free of work duties.
States may enact laws that have the same or better meal provisions than those in the FLSA. But, at this writing, only the states listed below have laws that include provisions for meal or other work breaks.
Work Break and Meal State Laws
The states and territories listed below have laws that include some sort of provisions for work breaks. Of the 25 at this writing, only 21 specifically require a rest or meal break for adults, while only 7 specifically require a rest break in addition to a meal break for adults. State law provisions for work breaks and meals mentioned on this page might not apply to all employees in a particular state. Click a state below for specifics.
If your state isn't listed, it means that there is no state law that specifically addresses work breaks or meals, at least not available on the Web at this writing. To see if your state has enacted a break or meal law since the last update to this page, check the summaries of state rest break laws and state meal period laws maintained by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Even if your state doesn't have a law that specifically addresses work breaks or meals, it might have related regulations or guidelines that do. Alternately or additionally, your municipality might have a work break law or related orders, regulations or guidelines. To find out, start by contacting the relevant state labor department.
Employers may grant more work breaks or those of longer duration than state or municipal laws require, but not fewer or of shorter duration.
In states and municipalities where there are no laws or related regulations or guidelines with work break or meal provisions, under the FLSA work break and meal periods are a matter of voluntary agreement between employers and employees or employers and unions.
If your employer is violating work break or meal provisions in state laws or the FLSA, the relevant state labor department might help you to right the wrong. If not, a lawyer likely will.
Work Break and Meal Agreements
Collective bargaining agreements (contracts) might require employers to give rest and meal breaks to union employees, whether or not state laws do. If so, under state right to work laws, nonunion employees working in a bargaining unit might be entitled to take the same work breaks as union employees working in the same bargaining unit. Consult your local union representative (e.g., shop steward) if your employer violates its collective bargaining agreement. If your employer or union violates a right to work law, consider consulting a lawyer.
Explicit and implied employment contracts also might require employers to give rest and meal breaks to employees, whether or not state laws do. Consider consulting a lawyer if your employer breaches either type of contract.
In the absence of contract clauses and state laws or regulations or guidelines that say otherwise, employers may call most of the shots. For example, under the FLSA, employers may set specific work break intervals and meal times, and may also require employees to stay on the premises during meal and other work breaks. Employers may also "force" employees to take work breaks, to avoid violating state or municipal laws.
But, of course, employers can't rightfully force employees to eat while on meal breaks, use the restroom while on bathroom breaks, drink coffee while on coffee breaks, etc. However, employers are not obligated to grant unscheduled "replacement" breaks to employees who use their scheduled work breaks for purposes other than intended.