Because the restaurant industry is often very competitive, you have a lot to worry about as a restaurateur without having to add the hassle of dealing with the Department of Labor for unfair labor practices. There’s a glimmer of hope: Federal law doesn’t require restaurants to provide employees with breaks, which provides you with plenty of leeway in creating break policies for your employees. State laws may be more proscriptive about rest and meal breaks, however.
Fair Labor Standards Act and Breaks
Since 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act has served as the United State’s primary piece of federal labor law. While the law provides rules on minimum wage and overtime standards that all employers must follow, it doesn’t set requirements for employers in any industry to provide breaks to their workers, nor does it limit the length of a shift or the number of hours you may require restaurant staff to work. Because of this, federal law allows restaurant managers to create break policies that fit their establishment’s needs with little oversight.
Paid Vs. Unpaid Breaks
Although the FLSA doesn’t require you to provide breaks to your restaurant staff and allows you to prohibit staff from taking breaks during lunch and dinner rushes, it regulates how you handle breaks if you choose to give them. If you allow workers to take a rest break that’s shorter than 20 minutes, you must compensate them for this time, even if they’re not attending to job duties. Longer breaks, which are usually considered meal period, don’t need to be compensated.
Employee Meal Policy
Most restaurants create an employee meal policy that allows employees to receive a free or discounted menu item each shift they work. In some restaurants, particularly small, independently owned eateries, employees eat together in a family-style meal before or after their shift. While this provides a low-cost benefit to your employees, it also familiarizes them with menu items, and can help suppress theft of food during the shift when employees know that they’ll receive a meal as a fringe benefit of their shift.
In some cases, state laws that require rest or meal breaks are more stringent than the FLSA. Only eight states -- California, Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington -- require workers receive rest breaks in the middle of their shift. Twenty states -- 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 -- require that employers provide their workers with some form of unpaid meal break.
- U.S. Department of Labor: What Does the Fair Labor Standards Act Not REquire
- Nolo: Meal and Rest Breaks - Your Rights as an Employee
- U.S. Department of Labor: Minimum Length of Meal Period Required Under State Law for Adult Employees in Private Sector
- U.S. Department of Labor: Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938
Wilhelm Schnotz has worked as a freelance writer since 1998, covering arts and entertainment, culture and financial stories for a variety of consumer publications. His work has appeared in dozens of print titles, including "TV Guide" and "The Dallas Observer." Schnotz holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Colorado State University.