How Many Hours Can You Work Before You Get a Break?

By Adele Nicholas
Women taking a coffee break

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Federal law doesn't require employers to give their workers lunch breaks or brief rest breaks during the work day. However, that doesn't mean that employees don't have any protections. Many state laws require employers to give workers breaks, and federal law mandates that most short breaks during a shift must be paid.

Federal Law

The Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA, is a broad federal law that sets minimum requirements for work conditions and compensation of employees in every state. Under the FLSA, employers don't have to give workers lunch or rest breaks. However, if an employer lets workers take short breaks of less than 20 minutes, the employer has to pay employees for that time. Likewise, employers can't deduct short breaks from workers' total work hours when calculating their right to receive overtime pay. Employers do not have to pay employees for breaks of 30 minutes or more.

State Laws on Lunch Breaks

Many states have laws that mandate employees be given breaks after a certain number of hours of work. Twenty states, plus Guam and Puerto Rico, have laws requiring lunch breaks for employees. However, these laws vary from state to state. For instance, Illinois requires a break of at least 20 minutes, no later than five hours after the start of the work period, for all employees who work 7 1/2 hours or more in a shift. Oregon law, in contrast, requires a half-hour break for each work period of 6 to 8 hours, and specifies that the break must come between the second and fifth hour for work period of seven hours or less and between third and sixth hour for work periods longer than seven hours.

State Laws on Rest Breaks

Laws about rest breaks also vary from state to state. The majority of states do not require employers to give employees breaks from work. Only nine states have laws about when rest breaks must occur. Washington, Nevada, Oregon, Kentucky, Colorado and California require employers to provide a 10-minute rest period for each four-hour work period. Vermont mandates that employees be given "reasonable opportunities" to eat and use toilet facilities. Minnesota requires "adequate" paid rest during each four consecutive hours of work. Illinois requires that anyone employed as a hotel attendant be given two 15-minute paid rest breaks in each workday in which they work at least seven hours.

Application

Employees in many salaried professional, executive and administrative jobs are considered "exempt" from the protections of the FLSA and state laws about rest and break periods. Likewise, many state laws do not cover people who are members of unions because those employees have an opportunity to negotiate their hours of work and rest breaks through collective bargaining. Finally, many state laws do not apply to agricultural employees, or people who provide babysitting services or home health care.

About the Author

Adele Nicholas is a writer in Chicago. Since 2003, she has been a contributor to publications including Corporate Legal Times, ChicagoMag.com and InsideCounsel magazine. Nicholas holds a Bachelor of Science in journalism from Northwestern University and a J.D. from the John Marshall Law School.

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