Are Employees Entitled to Paid Breaks and Meal Times?
The Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and New Jersey labor law require that minors (employees who are 17-years old or younger) be given a thirty (30) minute meal period after five (5) consecutive hours of work.
The FLSA also require that some employers provide “reasonable break time” to nursing mothers “to express breast milk for her nursing child.” See Fact Sheet #73.
It is widely accepted that rest periods and meal breaks promote efficiency and productivity in the workplace. Employees who work for 8 hours straight without a break cannot be expected to be productive. So, employers naturally give employees a break to maintain productivity.
Are employers required to pay employees when they take a break to rest and/or have a meal?
Regarding rest periods, the federal regulations state:
Rest periods of short duration, running from 5 minutes to about 20 minutes, are common in industry. They promote the efficiency of the employee and are customarily paid for as working time. They must be counted as hours worked. Compensable time of rest periods may not be offset against other working time such as compensable waiting time or on-call time. 29 C.F.R. § 785.18
Employers need to tread carefully.
According to the above, employers may permit employees to take breaks for any reason, including meals. However, employers who offer up to 20 minutes of break time must still compensate employees for taking such breaks. Employers cannot deduct 20 minutes of break times from the employee’s time or pay check.
What about “meal periods” 30 minutes or more?
The federal regulations provide:
Bona fide meal periods are not worktime. Bona fide meal periods do not include coffee breaks or time for snacks. These are rest periods. The employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purposes of eating regular meals. Ordinarily 30 minutes or more is long enough for a bona fide meal period. A shorter period may be long enough under special conditions. The employee is not relieved if he is required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating. For example, an office employee who is required to eat at his desk or a factory worker who is required to be at his machine is working while eating. 29 C.F.R. § 785.19
Thus, If the employer doesn’t want to pay employees while they are on breaks or meal time, the employer must offer employees a minimum of 30 minutes of break time (“bona fide meal periods”). In addition, the employer must ascertain that the employee is not working at all during those 30+ minutes.
Of course, somebody always asks the question, “What about 21-29 minutes? Should that be paid or not?”
Those are two questions that haven’t been answered. The regulations state that meal periods less than 30 minutes may be long enough a bona fide meal period “under special conditions.” But the regulation never explain what those “special conditions” are.
Employers should probably err on the side of caution. If an employer wants to assign 25 minutes for meal periods, it’s probably best to compensate the employees than take the risk of getting hit with a Wage and Hour violation.