Restaurant industry-specific rules concerning employee rest breaks and meal periods aren't addressed by federal law--and few states address this issue. Although some states have laws and regulations concerning employee breaks, only two states -- Colorado and Oregon -- have industry-specific guidance on what restaurant employees are entitled to during their workday. The remaining states leave it up to the employer to determine the frequency and duration of employee breaks.

Federal Law

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act governs working conditions, such as minimum wage, overtime pay, employee classification and employee rest periods. The law indicates that employers customarily provide short breaks to employees, usually five to 20 minutes long. However, the federal law doesn't specifically state what restaurant workers are entitled to. Also, according to the FLSA, employers must pay employees for these short breaks. The FLSA was amended in 2010 to include a law that requires employers to grant additional, unpaid break periods for nursing mothers to pump milk. This law includes restaurant employees.

State Laws

At the time of publication, just 20 states and two U.S. territories have laws regarding breaks for private-sector employees. Colorado is the only state that requires that food and beverage employees who work at least five hours receive a 30-minute meal break. Employees who work fewer than five hours aren't entitled to a 30-minute meal break. The rationale appears to be that if an employee works at least five hours, there's a likelihood that he works an eight-hour shift, and during a full day, it's customary to provide employees with a meal break. Even if the state law doesn't require a rest period or meal break, it's a common practice for employers to provide at least a 30-minute meal break for employees.


Oregon is one of the states that permits some restaurant employees to waive their rights to an unpaid meal break. However, one of the conditions under which an employee can waive her right is that she's allowed to eat while working during a shift that's at least six hours long. The state law limits this right to restaurant workers who receive tips and who serve food and beverages -- not other restaurant employees who aren't engaged in direct customer service.

Deductions for Meals

Related to the laws and regulations for restaurant employees' breaks is the subject of payment for meals. Many restaurant employees eat food the restaurant prepares because it's convenient and because sampling the restaurant's dishes enables them to give customers a better description of the restaurant's offerings. The policy of whether employers can deduct the cost of meals from employees' paychecks generally is up to the employer. Employers cannot deduct the cost of meals from employees' paychecks unless the business has written authorization from the employee.