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Laws Governing Employee Breaks

written by: •edited by: Ginny Edwards•updated: 9/22/2010

What are the laws for employee breaks and does every state in the US follow the same rules on breaks or time off for meals? Jean Scheid, an HR expert, explores the world of employee break guidelines.

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    Employee Breaks – Must You Allow Them?

    Your search on laws for employee breaks should start with the US Department of Labor. According to their website, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) “does not require breaks or meal periods be given to workers."

    There is a caveat to this statement, however, because some states have different rules and regulations when it comes to governing employee breaks. Some of the states who set their own rules on breaks include California, Delaware, Maine, New York, Washington State, Tennessee, Vermont, and West Virginia to name a few. You can find out the exact laws for employee breaks on the Department of Labor’s website (a link is provided at the end of this article).

    Keep in mind that almost every state that follows a “break" law, if interpreted correctly, is actually break and meal times that are usually required and allowed after 5 consecutive hours of work.

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    Allowing Breaks

    Break From Work Free Digital Photos In addition, if you do allow break or meal periods, even though the FLSA has no set laws for employee breaks, unlike a lunch period, you must view small or short breaks as compensated time—meaning you must pay the employee.

    For example, if you allow your employees a 15 minute break in the morning and in the afternoon, these must be considered on the clock hours worked; lunch periods, however, do not have to be reimbursed as hours worked.

    Finally, the US Department of Labor also warns that unauthorized or lengthy breaks that are longer than set break times don’t have to be included as compensated time. If you have an employee who constantly violates this rule, consider the employee warning route.

    If you do allow breaks, do write a policy and include it in your employee handbook as well as your HR policy manual.

    Image Credit (FreeDigitalPhotos)

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    Should You Skip Break Time?

    Many HR managers and business owners once they realize employee break laws are not enforced by the US Department of Labor either make the mistake of not checking state rules or if the state has no set rules—not allowing them at all.

    First off, when considering laws for employee breaks, think way back to when you were an employee. Most likely you were allowed breaks and welcomed them. Denying short breaks can affect employee morale or productivity, especially in these days of repetitive tasks or long hours in front of a computer monitor. People do need to bend and stretch to refresh from time to time.

    In other circumstances, break times for employees can give them the time they need to check on personal issues through telephone calls, texts or emails—especially if a family member, partner or friend is ill and the employee wants to check on their status.

    Most HR managers may read this article and agree this motivational tool should be used and encourage business owners to allow employee breaks. This is not always the case, however, especially when the business owner’s rules reign over those of the HR manager.

    As a business owner, before you deny short employee breaks, consider the consequences that will include dissension, distrust, and low morale. Be sure to check the US Department of Labor’s website for the laws for employee breaks in your state. Finally, if you’re unsure how to interpret these employee break laws, call the office of your local Department of Labor and inquire.