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Break time: Solve confusion over whether you must pay

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

THE LAW. Contrary to popular belief, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) doesn't require employers to provide meal breaks or rest breaks for employees over age 18. However, several states do set such laws. And if you operate in a unionized workplace, you may also be bound by collective-bargaining agreements that require breaks.

Although the FLSA doesn't mandate employee breaks, it does specify when you must compensate employees for break time. The basic rule: Pay for any employee breaks of 20 minutes or less. Breaks that extend beyond 20 minutes can be unpaid as long as the employee performs no work during that time.

For example, if you require a receptionist to monitor the lobby during her lunch, those minutes are paid time. The same goes if you ask employees to wear pagers or be on-call during breaks.

WHAT'S NEW. Lately, some states are trying to tweak their rules on meal and rest breaks, mostly in employers' favor.

Case in point: California's five-year-old law has sparked many employer complaints, but relief may be on the way. Changes proposed in April would give employers new flexibility regarding whether a meal break must be taken. For example, employers and employees could mutually agree to waive the meal break if the employee works fewer than six hours per day.

HOW TO COMPLY. Here are your legal obligations for rest breaks, meal breaks and bathroom breaks.

REST BREAKS. While the federal FLSA doesn't require you to offer rest breaks to adult employees, seven states currently do.

Each state's law is similar in that it mandates at least a paid 10-minute break for every four hours of work, preferably in the middle of each shift. Those state laws also exempt some industries.

MEAL BREAKS. Federal law is also silent on meal breaks for adult employees. However, 19 states establish such laws.

Those mandated meal breaks vary by length and type of industries the law applies to. The typical law requires em-ployers to offer a 30-minute meal break after five consecutive hours of work.

BATHROOM BREAKS. Again, no federal law specifies the number or duration of employee bathroom breaks. But Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations do require you to provide adequate bathroom facilities.

Those rules also prevent you from imposing "unreasonable restrictions" on employees' bathroom use. That rule is intended to allow employees to use bathroom facilities promptly, recognizing that bathroom-visit frequency varies among employees (depending on medical conditions or medications, for instance).

In production workplaces where the absence of one employee can hurt the work flow, OSHA recommends employers adopt a "signal system" so employees can request relief by signaling for another employee to take their position. If employees aren't being forced to wait an unreasonable amount of time for bathroom use, a system like this complies with the OSHA's rule.

Escape break-time liability: 4 tips

One crucial break-time mistake made by employers: requiring employees to perform work during their break times. Here are four ways to avoid that:

1. Review your break practices. Regularly monitor employees' breaks to make sure they're completely relieved of their duties. If they do any work during the break, you'll need to pay for the break time.

2. Put break restrictions in writing. Example: "Employees who take meal breaks at their desks are asked to refrain from working during that time. The organization encourages employees to leave their work area during meal time."

3. Notify supervisors about the law. Explain that they shouldn't ask employees to work during breaks.

4. Require prior authorization before employees work overtime or through breaks. That way, you can better track compensable hours and discipline those who break the rule.


Rest breaks, meal breaks


  • Federal law. The Labor Department main break-time site: www.dol.gov/dol/topic/workhours/breaks.htm.



  • State rest-break laws. A description of the seven state laws: www.dol.gov /esa/programs/whd/state/rest.htm.



  • State meal-break laws. A description of the 19 state laws: www.dol.gov/esa/programs/whd/state/meal.htm


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