Unpaid Breaks

If you work a full work day, it is likely that you receive a break, such as a lunch break, at some point during the day. If you work less than a full day, your place of employment might provide you with shorter breaks, possibly determined by the number of hours that you worked. It might surprise you that such breaks are not actually required by any federal law, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). If your place of work does not pay you for your lunch or rest break, that is not a violation of federal law, and in fact, if your place of work does not provide you with any work break at all, this still would not be a violation of federal law. However, this does not necessarily mean that refusing to provide breaks to workers is a legal labor practice, it just means that whether or not the practice is legal depends on the labor laws of the state that the employee works in, and not on the FLSA.

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What counts as a meal break, and am I entitled to one?

Whether or not they are required to provide a meal break, many employers do allow for their employees to take time away from work to eat a meal. If you are in a state that does require meal breaks you are actually in the minority, since less than half of American states have laws requiring that employers allow for meal breaks.

Meal breaks, as opposed to rest breaks, usually are at least thirty minutes long. If a state requires that employees receive a meal break, the requirement typically applies to employees working a minimum or five to six hours in a shift.

If I do get a meal break, am I entitled to be paid for that break?

As long as your meal break is a real, legitimate break from all of your work, then, no, you are not entitled to be paid for your meal break. If you have to continue to answer the phone, or participate in a meeting during your “break,” then yes, you should be paid for that time because it is not really a break at all.If you are just expected to be available, that might not be considered worktime. Failing to pay an employee during time that they are working is a violation of the FLSA. Additionally, if your unpaid breaks become worktime, and that pushes you over a 40 hour workweek, then you are also entitled to overtime pay, as long as you are a non-exempt employee under the FLSA.

If I am not entitled to a meal break, am I at least entitled to a rest break?

Currently only nine states require rest breaks. A rest break is one that that is typically rather short, and employees may get about ten minutes per each four-hour block of time that they work. Thus working eight hours would only mandate a twenty-minute rest break. These shorter breaks should be paid time though.

Are break requirements the same for all employees?

Not necessarily. Sometimes workers who are minors will be entitled to breaks under circumstances where an adult would not have to be given a break. Again, this varies based on the state the employee is working in.

What if my employer is denying me rest or meal breaks, or asking me to work through my unpaid break?

If your state’s labor laws require that you be given a meal or rest break, and your employer is denying you that time, then your employer is violating the law. Additionally, if you are asked to work while you are on break, then you should be paid for that time. If your employer is allowing you to have unpaid breaks, but asking you to work during that time, that is a violation of law. If you believe that your employer is not complying with federal or state employment laws, you should speak to an employment attorney to ensure that your rights as an employee are protected and that you are compensated for all of the time that you work.

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