Required Lunch Breaks in Labor Law

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Most employers make it their policy to give their workers a break or two every day. Those breaks can be spread out over a work day and can be as little as five minutes at a time. The biggest one is usually lunch. In some states an unpaid lunch break is the law.

State Laws

As of 2015, less than half of states require employers allow meal breaks. In those states, such as California, the time is based on how many hours the person works in a day. Typically, an employee must get a least a half-hour lunch break if they're scheduled to work more than five hours. In some states, it's six hours. If, however, an employee takes the lunch break while working at a desk, that is considered paid time.

Federal Laws

Federal law does not mandate lunch breaks. Nevertheless, if an employee is scheduled for lunch breaks of less than a 30 minutes, that period is considered paid time under federal law. For example, an employee set to work 40 hours a week must have at least 150 minutes of lunch time factor into her schedule. If the employee is scheduled for 40 hours, but only has 120 minutes of lunch on it, the 30 minutes is considered overtime and must be paid at time and a half.

Employer Mandate

A supervisor can make an employee take a lunch break even if there is no state law mandate. Refusal to do so may be deemed as insubordination, which may result in termination. The legality of such a corporate mandate depends on the state, and most states do allow the business that discretion. It usually applies for companies operating in multiple states. The rule allows such companies to have a consistent, corporate wide lunch break policy.

Lunch Break Defined

Federal law defines a meal period as anything lasting at least 30 minutes that serves a different purpose other than the typical coffee break. That kind of break is supposed to be less than 20 minutes and is done on company time. In some businesses, the employee isn't even allowed to leave company property while on "break" since he's still on the clock. In contrast, a lunch break isn't paid time so the employee can leave -- it's up to him to get back in time.