8-Hour Work Day: Rules, Breaks & History

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Throughout history, people in numerous professions worked from "can see to can't see" for little to no financial compensation in that 12-hour to 16-hour stretch. Consequently, slaves and sharecroppers as well as farmers and other agricultural workers all expected to rise before the sun to feed and water livestock, rebuild fires to cook the morning meal, mend harnesses, nets and tools and enter the fields to harvest crops until sunset before repeating the morning routine in reverse.

Employer expectations that workers make themselves available and work until they could not move another inch persist into the current century. For example, paid and unpaid interns alike find themselves expected to work well beyond today's 40-hour workweek, while right-to-work laws in many states back unscrupulous employers in cheating workers of fair and reasonable pay. Accordingly, the difference that prevents total exploitation lies in the protections provided under such regulations as the Fair Labor Standards Act.

History of the Eight-Hour Workday

Conventional wisdom attributes the origin of the eight-hour workday to Henry Ford, but the truth lies further back at the dawn of the Industrial Age, when Robert Owen advocated dividing the workday into three parts: eight hours of work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for recreation. Even here, though, conventional wisdom falls short. In reality, the push for an eight-hour workday began with Sir Thomas More in 1516 in his description of Utopia.

Which Agency Enforces Labor Laws in the United States?

The United States Department of Labor oversees all labor relations via the Taft-Hartley Act as administered by the National Labor Relations Board, the Wage and Hour Division and the Fair Labor Standards Act. The NLRB uses the Taft-Hartley Act to regulate employer/employee relations. The Taft-Hartley Act applies to the right to unionize as well as the right to act in concert as employees whether a union exists at that job site or not.

The FLSA regulates the minimum wage and overtime pay requirements among other issues. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, oversees workplace safety compliance, including inspecting worksites, providing safety training and recommending accident-prevention strategies.

Total Daily Work Hours a Company May Require

Companies with more than $500,000 in annual sales must adhere to the Fair Labor Standards Act. If your company does not make that level of sales, however, hold your sigh of relief for a few minutes longer.

Any company, regardless of the total dollar value of your annual sales, must provide employees with FLSA-level wage and hour protections if the company engages in any interstate or international commerce. The FLSA workweek consists of 168 available hours.

Will Overtime Begin After Eight Hours or 40?

Overtime pay as stated in the Fair Labor Standards Act means time and a half, or regular wages plus half, for any hours the employee works beyond the first 40 in a single seven-day, 168-hour week.

Moreover, employers do not have to offer double overtime pay, shift differentials (extra pay for working nights and weekends), paid time off or holiday pay, although they may choose to do so to maintain their status in the community as an employer of choice.

Effects of the Eight-Hour Workday on Productivity

OSHA recommends that if workdays last longer than eight hours for more than five days in a week without at least eight hours of rest time between shifts, then employers should provide meals and extra break time to avoid fatigue-related errors and possible injuries.

OSHA best practices insist that tasks requiring high levels of concentration, alertness or situational awareness and any job requiring heavy lifting or an elevated risk of falling should wait until the next morning instead of having employees perform those tasks at the end of the day. Employers must monitor workers for signs of decreased effectiveness and prolonged exposure to toxic substances whenever they require employees to accept mandatory overtime.

Length of an Eight-Hour Workday Lunch

Federal law has no mandate for the length of an eight-hour workday lunch, which may surprise workers who have received either paid or unpaid lunch breaks. Employers who provide meal breaks lasting 30 minutes or longer do not have to pay employees for that time if staff may use their lunch break doing whatever they please, including leaving the workplace. Employers must not require employees to clock out for the classic 15-minute rest break, however.

Most employers do provide at least a single 15-minute break in a five-hour or six-hour shift and as a courtesy, a minimum of 30 minutes for a meal break in any eight-hour shift. To avoid any appearance of not paying for all work hours, savvy employers provide a break room so that staff members do not perform any work while on their meal break.

Minimum Number of Eight-Hour Workday Breaks

No federal minimum exists regarding eight-hour workday breaks for adults. Some states have set standards for breaks, however, so the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division provides a table of minimum lengths for those states that have established break standards.

Using an Eight-Hour Workday Clock

Time clocks vary, but most employers use either a paper punch card or a swipe card that resembles a credit card. Some cards require direct contact with the clock to provide accurate arrival and departure times, while others operate using biometrics such as retinal scans or fingerprints.

Communicate immediately with supervisors if you believe inaccuracies have occurred when using your company's eight-hour workday clock. Do not wait until later in the day or week to request adjustments, as these usually require a supervisor to sign off on any discrepancy, and you may have trouble proving you arrived and departed on schedule if the supervisor did not notice your arrival and departure due to other responsibilities.

Can Employers Force Staff to Work Past Scheduled Shifts?

Certain professions, such as police, fire and emergency services personnel, nursing staff, home health aides, teachers and government employees will experience required extensions of their normal work hours. Staffing shortages that result in a need for overtime must not create health and safety hazards, and employers have no obligation to give prior notice that mandatory overtime will occur.

What End Point Defines 8-Hour Workday Times?

If the job does not require evening, overnight or weekend shifts, in most professions, eight-hour workday times begin around dawn or between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and end around sundown or between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Jobs that require coverage for the health and safety of children, students or patients may require that the person manning the current shift cannot leave until the person covering the next shift arrives.

This mandatory overtime occurs when a staffing ratio requirement clashes with worker availability, whether that results from accidents, illness or natural disasters. In other words, the shift ends after eight hours unless the next worker cannot arrive in time to maintain required staff to patient, resident or student ratios. In extreme cases, refusing to stay until the next staff member arrives constitutes job abandonment and may lead to charges of neglect or worse.

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About the Author

After earning a B.S. Ed. from Kent State University in 1995, Smith provided educational support in multiple Ohio school districts. Smith has managed nine employees and 86 independent adult care providers at a time. In addition, Smith has assisted two charities with successful 501 (C) 3 applications, serving on the board of one for three years. Currently, Smith serves as an independent Avon representative at Avon Beauty by Laura. Her writing chops include one published novel and close to 1500 articles in various online and offline publications.