When Do Employees Get Breaks at Work?

When Do Employees Get Breaks at Work?

You might expect to get a break when you work a long shift, but that’s not always the case. Whether you’re entitled to a break depends on state law and the organization for which you work.

Federal law doesn’t regulate breaks from work, but some states require employers to provide breaks to employees after they have worked a certain number of hours. Company policy may also stipulate when employees get breaks, and some employees are covered by collective bargaining agreements that determine when breaks are required.

These requirements don’t vary depending on whether you’re an hourly or a salaried worker. It also doesn’t make a difference whether you work onsite or remotely. The same guidelines apply to all workers at organizations that offer breaks, and whether you’ll get paid for your break varies as well. 

Here’s what you need to know about breaks from work, when employees get breaks, how breaks are compensated, and examples of state law and company policies regulating break time.

When Employees Get Break From Work

Types of Breaks From Work

There are two main types of breaks from work: meal and rest breaks. Rest breaks are short and are typically compensated for covered employees. Meal breaks are longer and typically aren’t compensated.

Rest Breaks (5 – 20 minutes)

  • Restroom breaks
  • Phone use, phone calls, email, social media, etc.
  • To get coffee or soft drinks, etc.

Meal Breaks (30 – 60 minutes)

  • Breakfast
  • Lunch
  • Dinner
  • Other meal break

When Employees Are Entitled to Breaks

Federal Law

The Fair Labor Standards Act does not regulate meal or rest periods, so, in general, there are no federal laws that require breaks.

There are some exceptions for occupations where safety is a priority. For example, truck drivers are required to take a 30-minute break after 8 hours of driving

In addition, the Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth.

State Laws

Some states require employers to give workers a break after a set number of hours. The duration of the break varies depending on state law. For example, in Colorado, workers get a 30-minute break if their shift exceeds five consecutive hours. In Massachusetts, workers get a 30-minute break after six hours.

Note: Here’s how to check meal break regulations for your state. When an employee is subject to both federal and state labor laws, employees are entitled to the most beneficial provisions of each law, so their breaks will be paid.

Collective Bargaining Agreements

When an employee is covered by a collective bargaining agreement that specifies breaks, they are entitled to the break time specified in the agreement. For example, the agreement may provide for two 15-minute rest breaks and a 30-minute lunch break during each 8 hour shift.

Company Policy

Breaks are provided as an employee benefit by some companies, even if they aren’t required to offer them by law. The frequency and duration of the breaks will vary based on company policy. For example, there could be 15 minutes paid breaks or an hour unpaid lunch break after working for a set number of hours. 

The details should be available in the company employee handbook. 

Paid vs. Unpaid Breaks from Work

If your employer does provide breaks, there’s typically a difference between which breaks are paid and which aren’t.

In general, short (rest) breaks of 5 – 20 minutes count as hours worked and are paid. Longer (meal) breaks that are over 30 minutes are typically unpaid. 

Breaks vs. Schedule Limits

There is a difference between breaks during a shift and limits to the number of hours you can work. For some safety-related jobs, federal and state laws limit how many hours employees in some occupations can work. For example, during any 24 hour period a flight crew consisting of one pilot can work for eight hours. A flight crew consisting of two pilots can work for 10 hours.

Truck drivers have a period of 14 consecutive hours in which to drive up to 11 hours after being off duty for 10 or more consecutive hours. After that time period, they cannot drive again until they have been off duty for another 10 consecutive hours.

What To Do if You Don’t Get Your Breaks

When you don’t get the breaks you expect, the first step is to consult your employee handbook if you have one. It should explain the company’s break policy. If you don’t have one, if it’s not clear, or if you aren’t getting breaks to which you’re entitled, talk to your manager.

If your manager can’t help, discuss the situation with your company’s human resources department. They may be able to help you resolve the situation.

When you can solve the problem internally, your state department of labor may be able to assist. You’ll be able to review state law and get assistance if your company is non-compliant. 

Here’s a directory of state unemployment offices you can use to find your local office.

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  • January 17, 2023