Ask an average American worker what she's looking forward to that day and chances are break time will come up. Most businesses give employees two or more short breaks a day along with a lunch break, which workers may assume is the law of the land. In fact, employers generally don’t have to offer work breaks under federal law, although breaks can be required in special cases.
Break Time Basics
Work and meal breaks can be required at the state level. Agreements between employers, workers and labor unions may demand breaks as part of the deal. Short breaks of five to 20 minutes are considered compensable work hours that must go into figuring overtime pay. That doesn't apply to meal breaks of 30 minutes or more.
Laws aimed at preventing religious discrimination can force employers to allow breaks. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to allow workers to practice their religious beliefs. That covers flexible arrival and departure times, work breaks and other allowances. Employers don't have to that if it's too expensive or disrupts the normal business flow.
The Americans with Disabilities Act includes a requirement to make accommodations for disabled workers, which can involve break time. For example, a worker managing diabetes might need extra break time to check insulin levels and eat snacks. Similarly, someone with a physical disability like a spinal cord injury might need break time for normally routine tasks, such as using the restroom.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010 introduced new break requirements for nursing mothers. Employers have to give them extra break time for a year after a child's birth. Since those women are expressing breast milk, the same law demands companies give them a space to do it other than a bathroom.
- U.S. Department of Labor: Breaks & Meal Periods
- U.S. Department of Labor: Fact Sheet #22 -- Hours Worked Under the Fair Labor Standards Act
- U.S. Department of Labor: Break Time for Nursing Mothers
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Religious Discrimination in the Workplace
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Questions and Answers about Health Care Workers and the Americans with Disabilities Act
- Environmental Health & Safety Online: What Breaks Am I Entitled To Under FLSA (
Gregory Hamel has been a writer since September 2008 and has also authored three novels. He has a Bachelor of Arts in economics from St. Olaf College. Hamel maintains a blog focused on massive open online courses and computer programming.