Q: What Are the Laws on Meal and Rest Breaks?

Under federal law, you’re generally not required to give your employees meal and rest breaks.

But there are special requirements for nursing mothers, and some states do have their own laws on meal and rest breaks. Let’s go over the details.

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Am I required to pay for breaks if I offer them?

First off, you can choose to offer your employees meal and rest breaks even when you’re not required to do so.

If you do offer them, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act provides some general guidance:

  • If a break is 30 minutes or longer and your employee is 100% free of any work duties during this time, then you don’t have to pay for the break.
  • If a break is 20 minutes or less, you’re expected to pay for the time as part of the workday. (That time counts towards the employee’s total hours worked for the purpose of calculating overtime).

What are the special requirements for nursing mothers?

Nursing mothers are the one group of workers that’s granted rest breaks under federal law.

Employers with 50 or more employees are required to:

  1. Provide breaks for employees who need to pump breast milk for their nursing babies for one year after the child’s birth. These breaks can be as long and as frequent as the mother needs.
  2. Provide a private space—one that’s not a bathroom—for the nursing mother that’s away from other employees and from the public.

You don’t need to pay for these breaks though—unless you already pay for short breaks for all workers or you require the nursing mother to work while pumping. In these cases, you’d also have to pay nursing mothers during their breaks.

If your business has fewer than 50 employees, you may not have to comply with this requirement if it would impose an undue hardship. The Department of Labor doesn’t define what counts as “undue hardship” though, so you’ll have to contact them for more details if you want to get an exemption.

Got it. What are the state-specific laws on work breaks?

While federal law only requires breaks for nursing mothers, many states have their own laws around meal and rest breaks.

Below is a breakdown of states that require paid breaks for employees.

StateRequirements
California10-minute break every 4 hours (applies to most industries)
Colorado10-minute break every 4 hours (applies to most industries)
Illinois Two 15-minute breaks for every workday that exceeds 7 hours (applies only to hotel room attendants in counties with more than 3 million people)
Kentucky10-minute break every 4 hours (applies to most industries)
Minnesota “Adequate rest period” every 4 hours (applies to most industries)
Nevada10-minute break every 4 hours (applies to most industries)
Oregon10-minute break every 4 hours (applies to most industries)
Vermont “Reasonable opportunities” to eat and use the bathroom
Washington 10-minute break every 4 hours (applies to most industries)

Note that several states also require unpaid meal breaks, with varying requirements depending on the industry and hours worked.  

And if you employ minors, keep in mind that many states also have stricter requirements for younger workers.

For instance, in Delaware, adults who work at least 7 ½ hours must have one 30-minute unpaid meal break. Delaware workers under 18 get more frequent rests: a 30-minute unpaid break every five hours.

To learn more about the law in your state, check your state’s Department of Labor site or ask an HR expert.

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