Are Missed Breaks Costing You Hundreds (or Thousands) of Dollars Every Year?
What the law says about meal and rest breaks
Have you ever experienced anything like this at work?
- You’re asked to man the front desk, answer phones, or do another supposedly passive activity while taking your lunch break.
- Your work area has gotten busy and you have to delay taking your meal break until things calm down. By the time you can finally get away, you have less than 10 minutes to scarf down your sandwich and get back to work.
Asking employees to work through breaks – or skip them altogether – is not necessarily a violation of federal law. However, the trouble comes when an employee gets his or her paycheck and sees that the supposed “break time” was deducted from the total hours worked.
This type of scenario is especially common when an employer uses an automated payroll system. The program may simply reduce daily hours worked by 30 minutes.
If this has happened to you, it’s possible that you’re being underpaid for regular work hours. If you get stiffed out of five 30-minute meal breaks per week, that’s 2.5 hours of work that you’re not getting paid for. In extreme scenarios, that could equal a total of 3.25 weeks of lost wages every year.
Worse, automatic break deductions may inaccurately decrease your total work hours, making it appear that you’re ineligible for overtime.
Situations such as these – whether intentional or not – may be considered wage theft. And yes, they may be violating the law.
Let’s take a look at what workers need to know.
What the law says
Many people are surprised to find out that federal law does not guarantee most hourly employees any specific breaks, for meals or otherwise. Of course, many employers opt to offer breaks anyway. After all, employees are likely to be more productive if they’re not forced to skip meals, and if they’re able to take periodic breaks when needed.
Some states and municipalities may also have laws governing meal and rest breaks.
But while federal law doesn’t require breaks in most cases, it is very specific about how breaks should be handled if employers decide to offer them.
Short breaks must be compensated
According to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), breaks ranging from five to 20 minutes must be compensated. Typically, these breaks might be used to grab a cup of coffee, visit the restroom, or make a phone call. The Department of Labor states that these “short breaks” must be included as paid work when calculating overtime pay.
Bona fide meal breaks, which federal law generally defines as lasting 30 minutes or more, do not have to be compensated if they are offered. However, the law is clear that work must completely stop during that time. That is, workers may not be required to do any work tasks, including passive activities such as waiting for deliveries, monitoring equipment, or answering phones.
If workers are required to do any work-related activity during a meal break, they may be legally entitled to compensation for the break period.
What employees need to know
If an employer is also subject to state or local laws regarding breaks, it must follow the law that provides the most benefit to employees.
As this fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Labor shows, issues surrounding breaks can be complicated. That’s why it’s a good idea to consult an attorney if you feel that you’re not being paid in accordance with the law.
Call or email us today to discuss your unique situation.