The Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) governs the payment of minimum wage, overtime pay, employment restrictions for children and employer record-keeping standards. Many people are surprised to learn that the federal government has little to say about meal periods and work breaks. These issues are, in fact, left primarily to state regulation.
Break Requirements in the FLSA
The FLSA does not require employers to offer break periods or meal times to employees. All regulation of time off is left to state labor departments. The FLSA does require that employees be paid minimum wage for time worked and that all nonexempt employees be paid overtime for work hours greater than 40 hours per week.
Payment for Breaks
The FLSA does address payment for break periods. Short five- to 20-minute breaks are considered beneficial for work efficiency and the FLSA requires that any such breaks be paid work time. Meal periods are to be complete rest periods. An employee cannot be required to perform work duties during a meal period and cannot be required to remain at a desk or workstation. True meal periods--complete breaks from work--are not paid work time.
State Meal Break Regulations
Nearly all states provide some sort of meal period provision for employees. In most cases, an employee is entitled to a half-hour meal period during each standard eight-hour shift. The Department of Labor offers a quick-view chart of state meal period regulations on its website, listed in this article's references section.
Employer Standard Practices
Each employer may set up its own standards for meal and break periods, provided that these do not conflict with state law. The Department of Labor recommends that all such standards be clearly communicated and agreed upon by employers and employees.
Employers and employees looking for further clarification should seek their local Office of Labor-Management Standards. A state-by-state listing of these offices is available on the Department of Labor website, listed in this article's resources section.