Under Federal Law, Are You Required to Pay Your Employees for Their Breaks or Not?

An area of confusion for many employers, and thus an area in which wage and hour laws are often violated, involves breaks and meal periods.  Specifically, are employers required to pay their employees for break and/or meal time, and if so, when? This area of confusion has resulted in Auto Cricket Corp., doing business as AutoCricket.com, paying 414 employees a total of $76,589 in back wages following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division.  

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers are not required to give employees meal or rest breaks.   Nonetheless, employers often offer such breaks in order to maintain employee productivity and morale.  Accordingly, when employers do offer short breaks (usually lasting about 5 to 20 minutes), federal law considers the breaks as compensable work hours for which non-exempt employees must be compensated and which are counted towards calculating overtime hours worked.  Bona fide meal periods (typically lasting at least 30 minutes), serve a different purpose than coffee, snack or short personal breaks and, thus, are not work time and are not compensable or counted towards overtime for non-exempt employees. 

However, to be deemed a bona fide meal break that does not count as working time, the employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purpose of eating regular mealsThe employee is not relieved if he/she is required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating.That means no greeting customers, no answering the office phone or work emails, and no running errands for work.    

AutoCricket.com apparently did not follow these regulations.  Instead, investigators found that the employer deducted short rest periods as non-work hours from the employee totals of hours worked.  Failure to pay for that break time resulted in the workers being paid less than the required minimum wage for all their hours worked. 

Since the federal regulations are unclear as to counting breaks lasting 21-29 minutes, it is best to set company policy so that breaks longer than 20 minutes are paid, and any shorter breaks are not.  Keep in mind that states and localities may also have break laws and regulations that could apply to your business. 

Bottom line, however, is there is no federal law requiring two 15-breaks per day.  Companies can certainly provide this, but absent a provision in a collective bargaining agreement or applicable law, doing so is through the company’s own generosity. 

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