The United States has many laws regulating working hours and conditions, but no federal law requires all employers to offer employees meal breaks. When employees work through an allowed break, however, federal law does dictate when they should be paid. Nearly half of the 50 states do require employers to provide for lunch breaks.

State Laws

Twenty-four states require employers to provide meal periods to employees. Some laws only apply when workers have worked for a certain number of hours, such as Pennsylvania's law that provides for a 30 minute lunch break after five hours of work. Some laws only apply in certain industries, such as Wisconsin's law that provides lunch breaks for employees working in factories, mechanical and mercantile establishments and certain service industries. Thirty minutes is the standard time allotted for a meal break in states that require them, but no state currently requires employers to pay for meal breaks.

Fair Labor Standards Act

The Fair Labor Standards Act is where people look for guidance on federal labor laws. But this act does not require the employer to give employees meal breaks or offer a way for employees to collect wages that were promised to them for working during such breaks.

Other Federal Laws

Federal law considers a meal that lasts at least 30 minutes to be a "bona fide meal period." If a meal is a bona fide meal period, federal law typically considers this time not to be work time and not time that should be compensated.

Federal Law Exception

Although federal law doesn't require paid meal periods, an exception exists. If an employee winds up working during his lunch break, he is supposed to be compensated for this time. For example, if he eats lunch in his office and has to take work phone calls during this time, the company must pay him for his time worked. Similarly, if an employer requires an employee to be on duty at his work station, the employee may have a right to compensation. If the worker is the only employee on duty, he does not have to be relieved for his meal break if he consents to this arrangement.

Not Taking Lunch

If an employee doesn't take a lunch, an employer can't deduct the time from his paycheck. An employer is not expected to baby-sit employees to make sure they take meal breaks that he offers. If an employee wants to be paid for his lunch time, he can work during the time and skip the break. Working off the clock can get him fired, though, so employees should make sure their employer knows they are still on the clock if they use this tactic.

Employee/Employer Agreement

Even if employees can't fall back on a federal or state law, they may have the right to receive a paid lunch. If this information is included in the employer/employee agreement, the employer is contractually bound to comply with the terms of the agreement. Changing the employment contract usually requires a signed addendum or some type of additional consideration.