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An employer’s guide to meal breaks

Amy Bourne |

Meal breaks and periodic rests are essential refueling tactics for construction workers during long days performing physical labor, as well as for landscapers and others in physically demanding jobs.

While the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require an employer to offer meal breaks or lunch periods to their employees, certain states have their own laws that do place obligations on the employer to give paid and unpaid breaks.

Whether your state requires meal and rest breaks, it’s common for many employers to allot paid time for lunch periods—especially in construction—and federal law does designate what time is considered paid and unpaid.

What is considered a lunch break?

A bona fide meal period is a break that lasts at least 30 minutes, according to the FLSA. It is not required by federal law, but your state might say differently.

Meal periods where the employee is completely relieved from duty serve a purpose beyond a simple break. When employers do offer short breaks lasting 5 to 20 minutes, federal law considers these part of compensable working time that count toward total regular or overtime hours (notwithstanding when a worker extends breaks beyond the time expressly allowed by their employer).

Even if your state does not require breaks, these federal rules still apply for employers who have unambiguously communicated lunch break periods to their employees.

Employee Meal Period and Compensation Rights

Although only a handful of states have meal period and break laws, it is common practice for employers to offer paid and unpaid breaks for their employees in the states that don’t.

The FLSA does enforce strict meal or break requirements for minors and other specifications for various employment groups. You can read which states enact federal break and/or meal period laws on the Department of Labor website.

Unpaid Meal Breaks

States that enact meal break laws require a half hour break if the employee’s shift is over 5 to 6 hours long. These breaks must be at least 30 minutes and are uncompensated as the employee is relieved from performing any work duties. These breaks are usually taken in the middle of an employee’s work day.

If the employee does have to do work while eating, however, he or she has the right to be paid during that time. Employers in states that do not require meal breaks but unambiguously communicate break allowances must follow the regulations stated above.

Paid Rest Breaks

Rest periods are smaller breaks that are 5 to 20 minutes long. These breaks are compensated as they’re considered working time.

Some states require that 10-minute, paid breaks are to be given every 4 hours of an employee’s shift. These small rest breaks are very common in the workplace and known to promote employee efficiency.

You can read more about which hours are considered compensable time under the FLSA on the Wage and Hour Division Fact Sheet.

Keeping track of your employee’s time out can be as simple as implementing an easy-to-use time clock app in your operations.

ExakTime’s mobile time tracking app makes it easy for your employees to clock in and out for breaks and it allows supervisors to track crew times ensuring adequate meal breaks are taken at appropriate times. Fill out the form below or call us to learn more.

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Amy Bourne is the marketing copywriter for ExakTime. She enjoys learning about the real challenges faced in the construction-related field, and providing content that helps business owners work smarter.

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