What Are the Legal Requirements for Breaks?

There is no federal law in existence requiring an employer to give breaks or lunches to their employees, except the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for breastfeeding mothers. Most employers will, however, offer short break periods anyway. This is generally because letting an employee have periods to rest can improve their performance at work. The time employees spend on these convenience breaks is usually included in their pay.

If an employee takes a longer break than they were allowed by the employer, their pay may be cut or docked accordingly. Most breaks are given for a period of 10 to 20 minutes and are often classified as coffee breaks. Lunches or periods required or given for meals are usually for a period of 30 minutes to one hour and employees are not normally paid for that time unless it is included as a collective bargaining agreement.

The Fair Labor Standards Act

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), has numerous situations they do not regulate in addition to an employee’s breaks and meal periods. Payment for vacations, sickness, or severance is also not covered. The number of hours an employee works daily, monthly or weekly, overtime and the age of the employee are not regulated by this FLSA either.

Many believe breaks, lunchtime, sick leave, and paid vacations are a right; however, the difficult truth is that those are benefits that are not guaranteed in most workplaces. That is why unions and collective bargaining is so important to employees and employers to a certain extent.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Wage & Hour Division (WHD) enforces the FLSA regarding private employers, the State and municipal or local government employers, and some Federal employees, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Library of Congress, the US Postal Service, and Postal Rate Commission. However, some special rules apply to law enforcement, fire protection, and volunteer services for compensatory time off, rather than cash overtime payments.

Required break times for breastfeeding mothers

As mentioned earlier, the ACA amended the FLSA, in that it requires employers to give reasonable breaks to employees to express (manually or by machine) breast milk. This mandatory break is extended to the mother to nurse her child for a one-year period after a child’s birth every time an employee has the need to express the baby’s milk.

Likewise, an employer is required to provide mothers a place, not a bathroom, that is out of eyeshot of other employees or shielded from their view and free from interruption from the public or other coworkers. Break rooms and break time became an obligation when the ACA became law on March 23, 2010. However, there are several exceptions and stipulations.

First, those employers with less than 50 employees are not subject to this requirement, when the requirement imposes an unnecessary hardship that causes the employer serious expense or difficulty when weighed against the size, nature, structure, or financial resources of the business.

In addition, there is nothing in the regulation that mandates an employer to compensate the nursing mother for those required breaks and state laws that offer greater protections for the nursing mother must be honored. For example, if a state law adds that a refrigerator must be provided in the space required by the original Section 7 FLSA regulation, employers with 50 or more employees must comply.

State laws and municipal ordinances

Different states have separate labor laws. These laws cover everything from child labor, to minimum wages, to rest and meal breaks, and employee pay. The length of an employee’s breaks and lunches may also be included in these laws. It is advisable to contact your state’s labor office to obtain specific details for your state regarding any of these issues. This will avoid serious miscommunications between employers and employees. There are public forms available listing these regulations both online as well as being available through many employers.

The following are some state exceptions:

  • California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado allow a paid 10-minute break for every four hours worked unless the employee only works three and one-half hours.
  • Illinois mandates hotel room service (chamber maids) employees two 15-minute breaks during each seven-hour work period.
  • Kentucky mandates a paid 10-minute break for every four hours worked in addition to lunch periods.
  • Minnesota mandates a paid, adequate (up to 20 minutes) break every four hours.
  • Nevada mandates employers of two or more to provide paid 10-minute break, except those who only work three and one-half hours.
  • Vermont mandates “reasonable opportunity” to use toilet facilities and eat.

All those listed above exempt the conditions of a “collective bargaining” agreement. In Washington state, despite the exemption of agricultural workers in its regulation, the agricultural regulation requires a 10-minute break for each four-hour period of labor. Please check with the WHD in your state.

Child labor laws

The FSLA does offer some generalized information regarding the labor laws. This information concerns the amount of the current minimum wage, stating this is in regards to a full 40-hour work week. There is an age restriction stating no one under 14 years of age can work any job considered nonagricultural except as stated below:

  • Newspaper or magazine delivery.
  • Radios, Movies, TV, or Theatrical productions.
  • Modeling.
  • Working in a parent’s business, except manufacturing, mining, or other hazardous jobs.
  • Babysitting.
  • Minor chores for private citizens in or outside their home.
  • Wreath-making or material gathering for the same (as homeworkers).

In most cases, an underage youth must have written permission from the parents for employment of any kind.

Filing a complaint

The WHD oversees the administration and enforcement of our nation’s most vital worker protections. WHD is devoted to safeguarding workers and ensuring they are paid accurately for every hour they work, despite their immigration status.