Employee rights and workday breaks

Federal labor law establishes a number of employee requirements that employers must follow. Surprisingly, the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) does not dictate that employees be given meal breaks or rest breaks. However, a number of states do have laws establishing that breaks must be given. 

Other states do not offer any break protections. As a result, everyone in the workplace can easily become confused on the subject. The best protection for both employees and employers is to be informed of the applicable state and federal law to make certain all parties are following the regulations that pertain to their company.

To stay compliant, your best bet is to use free shift scheduling software like Homebase that’ll help you make sure you’ve got enough coverage to give everyone on your team their mandated breaks, remind them to take breaks and clock in on time, and more. 

Plus, with automatic timesheet error alerts, you’ll see at a glance if someone didn’t take their required breaks or forgot to clock back in.

Federal labor law

Federal labor law enters in when employees have breaks deducted from their check when they do not actually take that time away from their duties. At some businesses, a lunch period is deducted as a matter of course, but many employees don’t actually take a lunch.

If they eat at all, it’s often at their desk while they continue working. Sometimes, employees are paged to take phone calls or resume their tasks before their lunch break is up. Unless employers offer an easy way to edit time cards, they can end up owing a large amount of back pay.

Employees must be reimbursed employees for all the time actually worked. The same policy goes for rest breaks. A company cannot automatically deduct wages for unpaid rest breaks since not all employees take their full break or any break at all. 

Employees and employers can protect themselves by making sure lunch and rest breaks are properly tracked and that employees are paid for all the time they actually work.

State law

State law varies a great deal on rest and meal breaks. Some require both paid meal breaks and paid rest breaks while other require no breaks at all. Of course, some employers go well beyond what state law requires. These variations can cause many misunderstandings and incorrect paychecks.

Meal breaks

Only 21 states require employers to give their workers lunch breaks, while nine require employers to offer lunch and rest breaks. Many employers in the 29 other states offer lunch breaks but do so because they consider it good policy. 

Employees are usually more productive when they have time to regroup and relax during the day. Also, many job seekers would hesitate to take a position where these breaks were not offered.

Those states that require lunch breaks usually do so for employees that are working at least five or six hours a day. Some states mandate that this lunch break cannot be given at the beginning of a shift or at the end. For instance, an employee should expect their lunch break to be somewhere in the vicinity of mid-day.

Rest breaks

A majority of states do not mandate rest breaks. Some give the employer a choice of offering a lunch break or rest breaks. States like California do require employers to offer a ten minute paid break for every four hours worked.

Other states that mandate paid breaks are Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Vermont, and Washington. As a matter of practice, however, short breaks of 20 minutes or less are generally considered part of the employee’s workday and are not deducted from their check.

Minor employee breaks

Some states like Delaware require employers to offer longer breaks to minors. In that state, adult workers get a 30 minute meal break after seven and 1/2 hours while minors get the same meal break after working five hours.  Younger workers are more vulnerable and often still growing. They may well need this extra time to rest from their duties.

Bathroom breaks

Bathroom break laws are slightly different and come from OSHA. Employees are not guaranteed a specific number of restroom breaks each day, but employers are expected to allow reasonable bathroom access without penalty. 

Also, the government recognizes that individuals have different bathroom needs, especially those with certain medical conditions, so employers must be careful with any restrictions they might try and impose on their employees in this area.

Employers do have the right to crack down on “excessive” bathroom use, although the definition of excessive is often hard to pin down.

Cigarette breaks

Employers are not required to make any accommodations for smokers. In fact, many businesses are now no-smoking areas. Employees can use their regular rest breaks and lunch breaks to smoke if they wish, but in some cases they will have to leave their workplace to find a place to legally smoke. 

Since breaks are usually under 20 minutes, that can limit a smoker’s options. The best plan for both employers and employees is to put a break policy in writing. Often, these two parties have different ideas about what breaks are allowed and whether they are paid or not. 

Establishing a clear policy and communicating verbally and in writing will help protect employers. Employees have a right to know the company’s detailed policy on breaks so that they can affirm that it follows state law. Clear communication on this issue will help keep both parties productive and out of court.

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