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Downtime: When to Pay for Meal and Rest Breaks

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in Human Resources

It's a deceptively simple concept: You have to pay nonexempt employees for every hour they work. But employers often trip over interpretation of that law when it comes to exceptions such as meal and rest breaks.

These rules are spelled out in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). They relieve you of the obligation to pay for workers' time spent in nonproductive activities, such as eating or resting.

First, follow this basic principle: Pay employees for the time that they are on duty. If they're engaged in their regular work, even if it's before or after their normal shift, that counts as work time. And if you know that they're doing the work, you have to pay them for it, regardless of whether it's on their time sheet.

If the extra time would add up to overtime and you don't want to be paying time-and-a-half, enforce a policy that says no one can start work before the shift begins and cleanup must be done before the shift ends.

But just because an employee is on the premises, that doesn't automatically mean she should be on the clock. Instead, the law says workers must be paid when engaged in "principal work activities." For example, changing into a uniform isn't considered work time, unless you require workers to wear the uniform and you don't allow them to wear it off the premises.

Federal law doesn't require you to provide rest or meal breaks for workers. But some states do. California, for example, requires a 10-minute rest period for every four-hour block of time.

If you do offer breaks, the FLSA is clear about when you have to pay. Coffee breaks or other rest periods lasting less than 20 minutes are considered working time.

But meal breaks of 30 minutes or more are unpaid time, as long as the employee is completely relieved of her duties during the time. If she's answering phones between bites of salad, you'll have to fork over the green.

Click here for a U.S. Department of Labor fact sheet that explains the rules in detail.

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