Employee Work Breaks: Legal Issues and Worker Needs
Surprisingly, federal law does not require employers to provide employee work breaks. Still, you should consider providing them. In addition to giving employees a necessary break from workday chores, they may also be required as accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or to satisfy state requirements.
Most employers recognize that periodic employee work breaks are beneficial for worker health and productivity and can reduce accidents and mistakes caused by fatigue and boredom. You should, however, take into account a number of different factors before establishing a policy on employee work breaks. These factors include applicable federal or state legal requirements, special employee needs (including those related to disabilities or breastfeeding), and differing job requirements. Consideration of these factors will help you establish an effective policy.
Federal and State Wage and Hour Laws
Federal wage and hour laws do not require employers to provide employee work breaks but, if breaks are provided, they generally must be treated as paid work time. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regulations, employers providing rest breaks of 5 to 20 minutes must pay nonexempt employees for the time and count it in determining the number of hours worked.
In contrast to the federal law for employee breaks, some states specifically require rest breaks for nonexempt employees or hourly workers. State laws regulating breaks vary, but often specify the timing and minimum duration for breaks.
For example, in California there is a law for employee breaks which mandates employees in professional, clerical, technical, mechanical, and similar occupations must be given a 10-minute rest period for each four-hour work period. These rest periods should be granted in the middle of the period, if practicable, and must be treated as paid time. Employees who work less than a total of three and a half hours a day are not entitled to the rest period. See CA Industrial Welfare Commission Order No. 4-2001. Employers in Maine must give employees at least 30 consecutive minutes of rest time per six consecutive hours of work time, except in cases of emergency. Rest time may also be used as meal time. See Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. tit. 26, §601. And, in Minnesota, an employer must give employees adequate time off from work within each four consecutive hours to use the nearest convenient rest room. See Minn. Stat. §177.253(1).
Like other violations of state wage and hour laws, the failure to provide required rest periods can subject employers to penalties or criminal actions. Therefore, you need to be sure to check for specific state laws and regulations.
Accommodating Special Needs with Employee Work Breaks
Regardless of wage and hour laws stated for employee breaks, there are situations when you should consider employee work breaks to accommodate particular employees with special needs, such as those with disabilities and new mothers.
1. Employee work breaks as a reasonable accommodation for a disabled employee. The ADA requires covered employers to make reasonable accommodations to qualified disabled individuals so they can perform essential functions of the job. Thus, if breaks would enable a disabled employee to perform essential job functions, you may have to modify the employee’s work schedule to allow additional or longer rest breaks.
For example, a disabled employee who is unable to stand for long periods might be offered uninterrupted paid short breaks, and extended unpaid breaks, as a reasonable accommodation. Another example would be a diabetic employee who could be accommodated with extra breaks for snacks or insulin injections.
2. Employee breaks for new mothers returning to work. Breastfeeding women often face difficult choices if unable to express milk at work and store it for later use. For example, they may have to choose to stop breastfeeding, take longer leaves, or even quit their jobs. Therefore, accommodations for these women can ease the transition back to work and improve retention rates.
Besides the practical arguments for accommodating breastfeeding workers, several states, including California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, and Tennessee, require employers to give them unpaid breaks to express milk during the workday. Generally, these states require you to provide reasonable break time, unless doing so is unduly disruptive to operations.
Tailor Employee Work Breaks to Differing Job Situations
Even if not required by law, employee breaks make sense in most workplaces just based on considerations such as employee welfare, safety, and productivity. When there are no state mandates or ADA considerations, you generally have the discretion to establish your own break rules and can build in flexibility to accommodate practical considerations. Although two 15-minute rest breaks spaced in an eight-hour work period are common, you should consider tailoring break schedules to specific job requirements.
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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