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

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There is no specific federal mandate in the United States requiring a business to offer meals or rest breaks during work hours for employees. However, many states do offer both, and the laws regarding them differ on a state-to-state basis. Short breaks of less than 20 minutes are compensable and included in the total hours worked each week and in the calculation of overtime per the U.S. Department of Labor's Fair Labor Standards Act.

The United States Before Labor Laws

Before there were any labor laws in the United States, workers were paid little, toiled for extremely long hours without rest or meal breaks and children as young as four were part of the workforce. In some cases, adults and children alike worked under dangerous circumstances. During the Industrial Revolution, millions of workers had no choice but to work from 12 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week for as little as $1 a day.

The Origin of the Fair Labor Standards Act

To fight this type of workplace exploitation, Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. The intent of the FLSA was to fight “labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency and general well-being of workers."

The FLSA enacted an hourly minimum wage of .25 cents and put limits on the hours of work in a week. Under the act, the maximum workweek would not exceed 44 hours (revised in 1940 to 40 hours), five days a week for eight hours a day. The act also required employers to keep records of hours worked and wages paid, including overtime if an employee exceeded the hours or days in the standard work week.

The FLSA also placed restrictions on child labor by implementing minimum age requirements for the workplace. The minimum age work requirement was now 14 after school hours and 16 during school hours. The FLSA also fixed a minimum age of 18 years old for jobs it deemed dangerous. These mandates set by the FLSA significantly decreased the number of minors in hazardous environments, such as mining or factory jobs.

Meal and Rest Breaks Under the FLSA

There have been several amendments added to the FLSA since its enactment, but federal law still does not mandate meal or rest breaks. Many states do allow for them, but there are also plenty that do not. An employer does not have to pay for meal breaks unless an employee is working through lunch, the state's law requires it or the break is less than 20 minutes. FLSA considers a break under that amount of time as part of the workday.

The definition of a short rest break per the FLSA is "short periods the employee is allowed to spend away from the work site for any reason." These can be smoke or restroom breaks, personal calls or visits and coffee or snack breaks. It is up to an employer's discretion to count any extensions of authorized breaks as hours worked. If an employer tells an employee that a rest break will last a certain amount of time, and the employee takes a more extended break, that employee can face punishment.

For more information on breaks including what an employer can count as hours worked, contact your local wage and labor office or the U.S. Department of Labor for information regarding specific state laws.

What States Have Rest and Lunch Break Laws?

Twenty states in the U.S. allow for meal breaks, and nine allow for rest breaks. The U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and Guam allow for both. Each state and territory's laws vary on the length of the breaks, if there is payment for meals and rest breaks, and to what industries they apply.

States that have laws in place for meal breaks are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia. States that have laws in place for rest breaks include California, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and West Virginia.

Meal breaks usually last 30 minutes or longer; however, shorter periods of time may also be enough for meals under specific circumstances. Most states that do offer meal breaks have laws providing employees with a half an hour meal break after five consecutive hours or seven and a half consecutive hours. Payment for meal breaks is up to the discretion of the employer in that state. However, if an employee works through a meal break, it is paid, according to federal law.

Break times at work generally occur in 10 or 20-minute increments after four consecutive hours in an eight hour day in the states that have rest break laws in place. In some states, if employees have rest breaks, they do not also have meal breaks. Check with your state or the U.S. Department of Labor to see how meal and rest breaks apply, as each state has variations on the law.

Meals and Rest Breaks for Minors

Some states that do not have meal or rest break laws for adults do have them for minors. The 35 states and territories that have provisions in place for minors are: Alabama, Alaska, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Guam and Puerto Rico. Often, meal and rest breaks for minors differ from those of adults in that the breaks are longer and more frequent. Check with your state labor department or the U.S. Department of Labor for more information on coverage for minor employees.

FLSA Breastfeeding and Break Laws

The FLSA allows break time for women who are breastfeeding under the Break Time for Nursing Mothers Provision, also known as Section 7 of the FLSA. Under this provision, employers must provide a "reasonable time" for new mothers to express breastmilk for up one year after a child's birth if that employee must do so. An employer must also provide a private space, other than a restroom, shielded from coworkers, in which a new mother may express milk. The area does not have to be a permanent, dedicated space.

All employers covered by FLSA must comply with this provision unless they have fewer than 50 employees and can show that such compliance would force difficulty or more significant expense. There is no requirement for the employer to pay for nursing mothers' breaks to express breastmilk. The Break Time for Nursing Mothers Provision does not preempt state laws that offer greater protections.

What Constitutes FLSA Coverage for Employers?

The FLSA covers employers who are engaged in interstate commerce or make at least $500,000 in total annual sales. Surprisingly, this law covers most workplaces, as "interstate commerce" can mean anything from regular use of the U.S. Postal Service for mail to and from other states, to use of company telephones for communication out of state. Those employers that use little outside labor are exempt from FLSA coverage.

Employees Covered by the FLSA

Approximately 143 million employees have protection under the FLSA. To be non-exempt, an employee must work for a company that also has non-exempt status. This is known as "enterprise coverage." An employee who has "individual coverage," and may regularly engage in commerce between states or "in the production of goods for commerce," also has FLSA protection. This can include someone who produces goods sent out of state, communicates with out-of-state entities for business, handles interstate records and transactions or travels outside a state for work.

Employees Exempt From FLSA Coverage

Even though an employer has FLSA coverage, some employees of that business may not. As an example, some airline and eldercare employees do not receive FLSA protections. Despite this exemption, some employees get a considerably larger salary in compensation for the additional responsibilities they may have. However, those exempt from FLSA coverage may miss payments for vacation, sick days, personal days and the first or last week of employment.

Salary and the type of work performed may also allow for exemptions from the FLSA. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, an executive who earns a salary of at least $455 a week, primarily manages and directs two or more people and can fire, hire, discipline, promote or demote employees, may be exempt. Administrative employees who perform office work under a manager, do non-manual labor and make at least $455 a week are also exempt from FLSA coverage.

Professionals working in creative fields such as music, writing, acting and the graphic arts. and perform tasks involving invention, imagination, originality or talent are also exempt from FLSA coverage. Those who work in jobs requiring advanced knowledge like law, medicine, theology, accounting or teaching and who make at least $455 a week are also exempt. People who make more than $100,000 annually in office work or otherwise non-manual labor are exempt from FLSA coverage if the duties of an executive, administrative or professional employee are part of that employee's job description.

Outside Salespeople and Independent Contractors

Outside salespeople generally work away from the employer’s location and fulfill duties such as making sales and filling orders from contracts with little to no supervision. An outside sales employee also typically gets paid through commission and is exempt from FLSA coverage. Independent contractors are also generally exempt from FLSA coverage; however, there is often misclassification when it comes to the status of independent contractors. The FLSA uses an Economic Realities Test to determine if the independent contractor is actually an employee, and, if so, FLSA rules may apply if the employee is not otherwise exempt.

What Else Does the FLSA Cover?

While the FLSA does not cover meals or rest breaks, it does cover wages, overtime and employer recordkeeping, and it works to promote safe and legal employment standards for youth workers. The FLSA guarantees a minimum wage and overtime pay for non-exempt employees. Currently, the minimum wage in the U.S. is $7.25 an hour. After 40 hours of work per week, overtime pay is "time and a half," or one and one-half times an employee's regular rate. (As an example, someone making $10 an hour would make $15 an hour in overtime pay.)

Under FLSA rules, employees over 16 years old can work an unlimited amount of overtime in any work week. Employees do not receive overtime pay on weekend days or holidays unless the hours on those days surpass 40 hours of work in a week.

Many states also have their own minimum wage laws in place. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have state minimum wages that are higher than those offered by the federal government. Employees that live and work in those states will receive the wage minimum offered by the state if it is higher than what the FLSA guarantees.

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About the Author

Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.