Meal and Break Policies at Work

In most workplaces, employees are entitled to some sort of lunch break or breather at least once a day. Taking time to eat lunch or another meal is not considered official work time, and employers don’t have to pay for these breaks if employees are off the clock. There are currently no federal break laws requiring employers to provide workers with time for rest or a meal break. However, most employers use their own break policies to keep the morale high and to ensure that workers are as productive as possible.


Certain states have laws in place regarding breaks at work. These laws may vary depending on the classification and age of the employee and the location of the business. Read on to learn more about allowable breaks at work, laws regarding breaks and some tips to help you implement successful break policies in your own company.


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Types of breaks at work

Each break is classified differently depending on the law and/or the company’s break policies. Here are some examples of the various types of breaks at work that employees can take:

  • Meal and rest: A meal break typically provides 30 minutes for employees to eat breakfast, lunch or dinner. Rest breaks tend to be shorter and typically give employees between five and 20 minutes before they’re expected to return to their tasks.
  • Paid vs. unpaid: Even if an employer is required to provide workers with a break, they don’t always have to pay for the downtime. Short breaks less than 20 minutes are considered part of an employee’s billable hours per state laws. However, lunch and meal breaks are usually unpaid although some states do require employers to pay for lunch breaks. If an employee works through their lunch break, then they would be compensated for their time.
  • Breaks for nursing mothers: Under the Affordable Care Act, employees must offer reasonable break time for mothers to provide breast milk for nursing children for one full year after the child’s birth.

Laws and regulations regarding breaks

When developing break policies at work, it’s important to ensure that the policy follows current state labor laws. You can obtain a list of meal break laws for your state from the U.S. Department of Labor. There are no federal break laws according to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Less than half of the states in the U.S. currently require companies to provide employees with a rest or meal break. For those states that do have break laws, a 30-minute break is required for workers who perform over six hours of work within a single shift.


A few states have employment laws that cover all employees, while other states only cover specific types of workers and those in certain industries. California, Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Vermont and Washington all require paid rest breaks by law. Other states like Maryland have a Shift Break law that specifically covers retail workers. When you implement your break policy, make sure that it’s in line with the laws in your state.


Many states require meal or rest breaks to be taken in the middle of a shift to avoid fraud. This is also a good way to ensure that employees are getting the breaks they’re entitled to by law. Some states have laws requiring paid rest to include bathroom breaks, but regulations vary. Check with your state’s department of labor to find out more.


Tips for implementing company break policies

When determining the best practices for allowable breaks, start with your state’s legal requirements first. If your business is located in a state without break laws, implement a policy that allows a specified amount of break time per number of hours worked.


Here’s an example of a typical eight-hour workday and how allowable breaks would fit within this timeframe:

  • For a full eight-hour shift, an employee can be given a 30-minute unpaid lunch or meal break and two 15-minute paid breaks. Another option could be to provide employees with a 20-minute rest break in the morning and then a full hour lunch or meal break later in the day.

Here’s an example of how allowable breaks could be implemented in a shorter six-hour shift:

  • Employees could receive two 10-minute breaks or one 20-minute lunch break during a six-hour shift. Giving employees a break after a specified number of hours worked, such as a 15-minute break every three hours is another option.

Meal and break policies FAQs


How many breaks should employees get in an eight-hour shift?

States that have laws regarding breaks at work typically require a minimum of 30 minutes for lunch (or another meal) for every six hours worked. For a full eight-hour shift, employees should receive a 30-minute meal break and between five to 20 additional minutes for rest.


What’s the longest an employee can work without a break?

Employees can work up to six consecutive hours without a break if your state law allows it. Anything over six hours worked should include a minimum allowable break time for meals or rest. It’s important to be sure that you implement your company’s break policies in a clear, concise way to help employees understand their rights.


Can an employee choose not to take a lunch break?

An employee may choose not to take a lunch break, but they need to be paid for this time. Requiring employees to work through unpaid lunch breaks is not recommended and should not be commonplace; however, there are exceptions and occasions when an employee may prefer to work through their lunch break to leave early or to finish a project on time.

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