Meal periods and breaks in a workday can definitely help one recharge their batteries when at a tough day of work. It’s difficult for some to stay put for eight plus hours a day and keep their concentation on work at all times. The FLSA has tight rules around both rest periods as well as lunch periods. I wrote an employee handbook for a car body shop about a year ago and I recall how shocked I was because they did not have a policy surrounding meals and breaktimes. This car body shop had a wage and hour lawsuit at the time and I remember advising them how a policy handbook is necessary and should signed by all employees.
The FLSA states breaks are to be paid if they’re twenty minutes or less; however, if they’re over twenty minutes, they’re non-compensable. I advised the car and body shop CEO they should have a clear policy on their break and meal periods to help protect them from a future wage and hour lawsuit. The CEO would tell me how his employees could take smoke breaks, but did not have a timeframe on how long those breaks could be. Please remember, break times are *not* required under the federal law, but may be required under state law. According to this link, there are nine states which require some form of a paid break time during the work day http://www.dol.gov/whd/state/rest.htm.
The FLSA promulgates the age of fourteen (14) to be the minimum age to begin working in non-agricultural jobs. At age sixteen, seventeen and eighteen there are no restrictions on the employee in regards to hours worked. Employees fourteen and fifteen years of age may not work more than three hours a day on school days and more than eight on non-school days. They also may not work more than 40 hours in any workweek. Here is a link to the law guidelines: http://webapps.dol.gov/elaws/whd/flsa/docs/hours.asp. When an employee tells me they’re disappointed for not getting breaks, I inform them the federal law (and state law in Louisiana) does not require employees to get breaks or lunch breaks; however, the employer must pay them overtime for all hours worked over forty in a single workweek (if they’re non-exempt).
I recall my first job and how I would be hounded all day about when I needed to take my lunch break and when I would need to clock out. It was scary as I realized how much liability an employer takes when they hire someone at age fourteen and fifteen. I recall working over eight hours one day and the manager said she was going to adjust my timecard to reflect the eight hours so we would not get fined by the DOL. I was so young and naive, I did not even realize how the laws worked and protected me. I realize now how she violated the law by not paying me overtime for the small period of time and for adjusting my timesheet. I was never upset as I realized at the time how the facility could not be fined as they were barely making it at the time.
Lunch breaks must be a minimum of thirty minutes, and the employee may not perform any type of work during this period. If the employee does work during their meal period, they must be compensated for this time. If the employee is away for lunch for a minimum of 20 minutes and performs no work, this time is classified as non-compensable break. At one of my former jobs, I would see employees who would talk with each other for forty minutes or longer and tell me how they did not clock out because they were owed the time. It was interesting how the policy and procedures would be written clearly for every employee to understand; however, they did not read or follow them. If I took a personal call and it went over twenty minutes, I would adjust my time to show the applicable unpaid break. Here is a fact sheet for the law and how it operates: http://www.dol.gov/dol/topic/workhours/breaks.htm.
So if you’re worried you’re not giving employees breaks or the timeframe involved, please consult the Department of Labor website (www.dol.gov) and discover which laws apply to you. If you don’t pay employees who eat and work at the same time, you could eventually see a class action lawsuit in the future for unpaid time which should’ve been compensable. A clearly written policy does not always do the trick, managers and supervisors must monitor time and attendance as well as their employees breaks/lunch breaks. You could also be paying for breaks which are extending past twenty minutes each day (this could potentially be a huge expense if thousands of employees are doing this everyday).
Do you feel your organization does a good job at monitoring breaks and lunch breaks? Does your organization have a clearly written policy and procedure for lunch breaks and break times? If the answer is no to both of these questions, it may be time to sit down and write a clear policy.