Federal laws provide the basic labor laws that protect employees in the U.S. States have the right to increase these employee federal protections, but cannot decrease them. Texas law provides for a higher minimum hourly wage than does federal law, but in terms of lunches and work breaks during the workday, it is largely silent.
FLSA and State Labor Laws
The federal government has enacted labor laws that protect employees, including laws regulating wages and working conditions. The primary federal law that ensures employee rights is the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA).
The FLSA applies to workers in all states and sets a bar beneath which states cannot go; it sets the minimum hourly wage for workers, defines a workweek, and requires overtime pay.
While the FLSA does not allow a state to reduce federal labor law protections, a state can enact employment laws that provide greater protections to employees. Many states have done so, including Texas, which has enacted laws that provide higher minimum wages for its workers than those provided in the FLSA and/or greater overtime protection.
Meal Breaks and Rest Breaks
Despite the sweeping protections offered employees by the FLSA, neither this federal law nor any other federal law mandates that employers offers their workers lunch breaks, meal periods or rest breaks. States are permitted to mandate these break requirements and some states have enacted strict state laws requiring these types of work breaks.
California law, for example, provides that the state's workers have the legal right to three types of work breaks during their work shift. They are:
- Bathroom breaks.
- Rest breaks.
- Meal breaks.
These break periods serve different purposes, and the number of breaks depends on the number of hours in an employee’s shift. Restroom breaks and rest periods, in California, must constitute paid time and are counted in the hours worked by an hourly employee. Meal breaks are not counted as paid work time.
Texas Meal Breaks and Rest Breaks
In contrast, Texas labor laws do not include break laws. That is, the laws do not require employers to allow their workers any break periods at all to use the restroom, to simply rest, or to eat a meal. The one required work break is for breastfeeding mothers, which piggybacks on federal law.
Otherwise, the law about work breaks in Texas allows an employer to decide whether to let employees take breaks; it is a matter within their discretion.
If employers do permit breaks, federal law mandates that they do not discriminate, basing the right on any of the protected categories like race or gender. That is, if an employer provides breaks to employees, they cannot deny them to specific employees on the basis of their sex, race, disability, national origin, age or religion.
Paid or Unpaid Breaks in Texas
In Texas, employers have no obligation to provide their workers with either rest or meal breaks, including lunch breaks. It is left to the employment contract. But if the employer does opt to offer employees work-shift breaks, federal law (FLSA) determines whether the breaks must be "on the clock" or not.
Work breaks are treated differently from meal breaks when it comes to pay. Work breaks are generally short breaks (often five to 20 minutes) interspersed throughout the hours of work, and offered to permit an employee to relax during the middle of a shift.
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, work breaks are counted as work time, and these minutes must be included in the hours worked.
Meal Breaks Are Different Than Work Breaks
Meal breaks of at least 30 minutes are treated differently. If an employer decides to allow workers time off from work to eat, they are not required under the FLSA, to pay the employee for their break time. On the other hand, the employer cannot require an employee to work through lunch without paying for that time.
Meal breaks are segments of time that belong to the employee. While the law does not mandate that a worker actually eat during the break, the employer generally cannot require the employee to be on call or even to answer business calls during this time. In fact, the worker must be free to leave the work premises if they wish.
Breaks for Breastfeeding Mothers
Under the FLSA, employees who are nursing mothers have the right to reasonable breaks and a location on the worksite that is shielded from view in order to express breast milk. This site cannot be a bathroom, except in very unusual circumstances.
This right is available during the first year after the employee gives birth, from the date of birth until the child is one year old.
Nursing employees can take reasonable break time “each time such employee has need to express the milk.” An employer may not deny a covered employee a needed break to pump. The frequency and duration of breaks needed to express milk likely will vary depending on factors related to the nursing employee and the child.
These factors can include the distance from an employee's worksite to the worksite location for expressing breast milk and whether a machine is available and set up on site.
FLSA Overrides Texas Workplace Laws
Texas state labor laws do not impose this same requirement. However, Texas employers are still required to provide nursing mothers with breaks to express breast milk under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. That is because the FLSA applies to employees in every state, and state law cannot reduce those protections.
Reporting Violations to the Texas Labor Board
The agency that enforces labor laws in Texas is the Texas Department of Labor, officially known as the Texas Workforce Commission. It handles reports from workers who feel their rights were violated by Texas employers. This includes complaints from whistleblowers who report retaliation or mistreatment.
- U.S. Department of Labor: Breaks and Meal Periods
- U.S. Department of Labor: Minimum Paid Rest Period Requirements Under State Law for Adult Employees in Private Sector
- Texas Workforce Commission: Employee Rights and Laws
- Department of Labor: Handy Reference Guide FLSA
- California DIR: FAQ Rest Periods
- DOL: FLSA Break Time Nursing Mothers
- Upcounsel: Labor Laws in Texas
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.