The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was passed in 1934 to protect employees from being taken advantage of by employers. This law requires employers to pay an appropriate minimum wage and pay overtime if an employee works more than eight hours in a day. The FLSA does not address lunch breaks; employers must look to state law to determine whether they must give hourly employees lunch breaks.
No Federal Law
As of 2011, federal law does not require employers to give hourly employees lunch breaks. State laws vary on this matter. Contact your state's department of labor to find out whether you must give employees a lunch break, how long a break to give them and how many hours employees may work before they must take a break. In states that have mandatory lunch breaks, usually employees must take a 30-minute break for every six hours worked.
Under federal law, employers must pay employees for breaks of less than 20 minutes. Thus, if an employer offers coffee breaks to employees of five to 10 minutes, the employer cannot deduct those few minutes from the employee's paid time. Although federal law does not require employers to offer coffee breaks, some states, such as California, require that employees be given a 10-minute break for each four hours that they work.
If state law requires employers to offer meal breaks to employees, workers can sue for damages if an employer denies them proper meal breaks. In many states, meal breaks where the employee stays in the office during her lunch break and works as needed are not considered proper breaks. U.S. Legal reports that, in California, employees can recover damages of one hour's work for each meal break that was not given as required.
Even if an employer is not required to give meal breaks to his employees, he can do so to avoid paying overtime. If a worker does not take a break and thus works more than eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week, that worker must receive overtime pay for the extra hours worked. This amounts to 1.5 times to twice the worker's regular pay, depending on state laws regarding overtime.