Do your employees take full advantage of their meal breaks and actually eat lunch? Or do they use the time to eat at their desks while working, spend the break running errands, or skip meal breaks altogether?
This behavior can be detrimental – both in terms of productivity and because of the potential for violations of state break requirements and federal and state wage and hour laws. Further, meal breaks are important since they give employees a chance to relax and recharge themselves for the remainder of the workday.
To encourage your employees to take advantage of their meal breaks, there are six different factors you should cover in your meal break policy. Below, you will learn about these six issues as well as applicable federal or state legal requirements, special employee needs (including those related to disabilities), and scheduling requirements.
Federal Meal Break Requirements
The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require employers to provide meal breaks, but it does stipulate when those breaks must be paid. State law, in contrast, often mandates a certain meal break period, and these requirements are discussed below. As a general rule, employees do not have to be paid for “bona fide” meal periods. For a meal period to be considered bona fide, employees must be completely relieved from duty, although they do not have to be allowed to leave the premises. The FLSA regulations, found at 29 C.F.R. §785.19, emphasize that an employee is not relieved, however, if he “is required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating.”
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So, for example, in Bernard v. IBP Inc. of Nebraska, 154 F.3d 259 (5th Cir. 1998), the court determined that the employer must pay for meal periods because employees could not leave the premises and often were interrupted by maintenance problems during their breaks. In contrast, in Roy v. County of Lexington, 141 F.3d 533 (4th Cir. 1998), the court found that the evidence showed that the County allowed employees to use mealtimes primarily for their own benefit since they could go anywhere within their response zones during mealtimes and were interrupted only for emergency calls.
In addition, according to the FLSA regulations, the meal period should be at least 30 minutes long in order to be unpaid, although a shorter period may qualify under special conditions. Note, though, many states have statutes that require meal periods of at least 30 minutes, as discussed below.
State Meal Period Limitations
Although there are no federal meal break requirements, many states do require employers to provide at least one and sometimes multiple meal periods to employees who have worked a minimum number of consecutive hours. In Illinois, for example, employees who are scheduled to work at least 7-1/2 consecutive hours must be given at least a 20-minute meal period within five hours after the start of the work period. (This restriction does not apply to employees whose meal breaks are established by a collective bargaining agreement.) See 820 ILCS 140/3. California requires employers to allow a meal period of at least 30 minutes per each five-hour period worked by employees in professional, clerical, technical, mechanical, and similar occupations. See CA Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Order No. 4-2001, Cal. Labor Code §512.
In Minnesota, employers must give “sufficient” time to eat a meal to employees who work eight or more consecutive hours. See Minn. Stat. §177.254. Washington requires employers to give a 30-minute meal break to employees working over five hours and an additional 30-minute meal break to certain employees who work 3 or more hours longer than their normal workday. See Wash. Admin. Code §296-126-092.
A few states have different meal requirements that apply to particular groups of employees, such as office and factory workers. For example, in New York, non-factory employees who work a shift of more than six hours must have at least 30 minutes for a meal break during the noonday meal period, between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., and factory employees must have at least 60 minutes. See N.Y. Lab. Law §162.
And, even states that do not have meal break requirements for adults may have provisions that apply to minors. For example, Florida does not have a general meal break requirement, but it requires that minors 17 and younger be provided at least a 30-minute meal break per four hours worked. See Fl. Stat. §450.081(1)(b)(4).
Most of these state laws also impose fines and penalties for missed meal breaks. Therefore, you need to be sure to check for specific state laws and regulations. The federal Department of Labor provides a list of states with meal break requirements online at http://www.dol.gov/whd/state/meal.htm.
Six Topics to Consider in Your Meal Break Policy
(Download a free Meal Breaks model policy including HR best practices and legal background.)
So, to comply with state and federal requirements and to promote employee productivity, you should address the following six issues in your meal break policy:
1. Duration of meal break. The length of meal breaks often is determined by the organization’s operations, facilities, location, and concern for employee well-being. Many employers provide between a 30- and 60-minute meal period so that employees have enough time to eat, shop, relax, or take care of personal business. Organizations with multiple shifts or continuous operations may need to schedule shorter meal breaks or require employees to eat while working, if allowed by state law and if paid.
2. Scheduling meal breaks. Many employers establish general guidelines concerning meal or lunch periods and leave the scheduling to the supervisor or department head. This practice gives supervisors maximum flexibility for scheduling breaks according to departmental needs and allows them to control overcrowding of the cafeteria or eating areas. Supervisors who are allowed to set break schedules should be trained to avoid even the appearance of favoritism since it may hurt morale and provoke claims of discrimination. Your schedule also should conform to any state law requirements.
3. Breaks as accommodations. Your policy should be flexible so that you can accommodate employee special requests. In particular, certain disabled employees covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act may require more frequent meal breaks as a reasonable accommodation, such as diabetics who need extra breaks to eat snacks.
4. Pay for meal breaks. As a general rule, meal breaks can be unpaid for nonexempt employees, unless any work is performed during the break. Nonexempt employees should account for the meal period on their time cards.
5. Second meal break. Many states require employers to provide a meal period after employees work for six or more consecutive hours. To comply with these requirements and to meet employee needs, many organizations schedule a second meal period for employees who are required to work more than 10 hours in any workday.
6. Work during meal breaks. Some employees see working through meal periods as a way to earn additional compensation or to shorten their workdays. If you are in a state that does not regulate meal breaks, you have the discretion to allow employees to skip breaks and leave early. However, employees may incur overtime by working through their lunch breaks if they do not take sufficient time off during the rest of the workweek. In addition, productivity may suffer when they skip these breaks. Finally, if your state requires meal breaks, you should not allow employees to skip the breaks.
Make Meal Breaks Part of Your Work Day
Even if not required by law, meal breaks make sense in most workplaces just based on such considerations as employee welfare, safety, and productivity. When there are no state mandates or ADA considerations, you generally have the discretion to establish your own meal break rules and can build in flexibility to accommodate work-related considerations. Of course, whatever your practical considerations, you still need to be consistent and make sure you treat similarly situated individuals or groups in a nondiscriminatory manner.
Robin Thomas, J.D.
Personnel Policy Service, Inc.
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