Meal and rest break laws. How do they work? What are the obligations for employers? Are California’s meal and rest break laws really that complicated?
While there are no federal laws that pertain to meal and rest breaks, several states have passed legislation requiring employers to provide them. As with most aspects of employment law, each state is different.
The topic was the subject of the most recent GovDocs webinar, Gimme a Break: How to Comply with Meal and Rest Break Laws, hosted by Jana Bjorklund, GovDocs senior counsel and director, Employment Law and Compliance. The webinar covered:
- An overview of state meal and rest break laws
- Managing these laws in California
- Scenarios and best practices
As a general rule, absent state law, rest breaks of 20 minutes or less are paid while meal periods of 30 minutes or more are unpaid.
Also, employers should note that the information provided here applies to adult employees.
State Meal Break Laws
Starting with meal breaks, they are required for employees working 7 ½ hours or more in:
- Connecticut and Delaware, when a 30-minute meal break must be taken after the first two hours of work and before the last two
- Illinois, with a 20-minute meal break no later than 5 hours after starting work. A second meal break is required for each continuous 7 ½ hours worked
Illinois also has an industry-specific meal break law for hotel room attendants in counties with a population of more than 3 million.
Elsewhere, meal breaks are required for employees working 6 or more hours in:
- Maine – more than 6 hours, 30 minutes
- Massachusetts – more than 6 hours, 30 minutes
- Maryland (retail only)
- More than 6 hours, 30 minutes
- 8 hours or more, add 15-minute break every 4 consecutive hours
- Rhode Island
- 6-hour shift, 20 minutes unpaid
- 8-hour shift, 30 minutes
- Tennessee – 6-hour shift, 30-minutes meal break
- West Virginia – 6-hour shift, 20-minutes meal break
- Wisconsin – More than 6-hour shift, 30 minutes near mealtime or middle of shift
Other states require meal breaks for employees working more than 5 hours:
- Colorado – 30-minute meal break
- New Hampshire – 30-minute meal break
- North Dakota – 30-minute meal break if there are two or more employees on duty
- Washington – 30-minute meal break that must start at least 2 hours and before 5 hours into employee’s shift; a second 30-minute meal if the overtime shift extends 3 hours after the normal workday. Waivers are allowed
Meanwhile, some states have yet other requirements for meal breaks:
- Kentucky – Reasonable time
- Minnesota – 8-hour shift: reasonable time to eat a meal
- Nebraska – 8-hour shift: 30 minutes (assembly plants, workshops, mechanical establishments only)
- Nevada – 8-hour shift: 30 minutes
- New Mexico – Meal breaks less than 30 minutes must be paid
There are two states that have more specific requirements for employers to note.
First, in New York, meal break requirements for shifts of 6 hours or more consist of:
- 30-minute meal break between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. for shifts extending over this time period
- For shifts beginning before 11 a.m. and continuing after 7 p.m., an additional 20-minute meal break between 5-7 p.m.
- For shifts starting between 1 p.m. and 6 a.m., 45-minute meal period in the middle of the shift
Finally, in Oregon, if a shift is 6 hours or longer, employees get a 30-minute meal break. However, there are other requirements for longer shifts:
- 6-7 hours: Break must occur between second and fifth hours of work
- Longer than 7 hours: Break must occur between third and sixth hours of work
- 14 or more hours: Employee must receive a second meal break
California, and its complexities regarding meal and rest break laws, will be outlined separately below.
State Rest Break Laws
While many states have meal break laws, fewer have requirements for employers regarding rest breaks.
In a some states, it’s 10 minutes for every 4 hours worked:
Other states, including Minnesota and Vermont, require reasonable time to eat or use the restroom, while Maryland has a law for retail employees — 15 minutes for every 4-6 hours worked.
Other Types of Rest Breaks
Another type of break laws is “day of rest,” under which employees must be provided with a day off after working a certain number of consecutive days. States that have passed these laws include: California, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, North Dakota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Texas and Wisconsin.
Again, these vary by state. Employers should check jurisdictions where they have locations to ensure compliance.
Yet another type of break for employers to monitor is lactation breaks. Such laws have been passed in:
- District of Columbia
- New Jersey
- New York
- South Carolina
Many apply to employers with a certain number of employees. Lactation laws range widely, some requiring a room with privacy. Others are more extensive. New York, for example, requires a room for lactation, refrigerators and a written lactation room accommodation policy.
As with all these rest break laws, employers should check for any requirements in jurisdictions where they have locations.
California Meal and Rest Breaks
Coming to California, in addition to the meal and rest break laws employers need to be aware of, they also have to note the consequences of noncompliance. There has been a spate of litigation on California over meal and rest breaks.
Rest breaks in California are generous:
- 10 minutes for every 4 hours worked
- Uninterrupted, relieved of all duties
- No on-call
- Freedom to leave premises
- Penalty for failure to provide: 1 hour of pay
Also, if employees are working during the break, they must be given another if possible. If it was the employer’s fault a break was interrupted, the employee gets an hour of pay.
Regarding meal breaks in California, for shifts of 5 hours or more, employees are entitled to a 30-minute work-free break that must start by the fifth hour of work. Employees can waive the meal break if their shift is 6 hours or less.
For shifts more than 10 hours but less than 12, a second meal is break required. This must be provided by end of 10th hour, and employees can waive one but not both.
Again, the penalty for failure to provide a meal break is one hour of pay.
California Waiver Requirements
In California, waivers for breaks must be mutual, and the employer must be able to demonstrate the waiver was voluntary.
Getting these for every meal break can become an administrative nightmare. Many employers have an employee sign one waiver to apply to any time. Other systems can be helpful to establish voluntary waivers: digital systems, drop-down menus, etc. Courts have held this can help mitigate liability.
Even for employers that do have a system in place, it makes sense to monitor it frequently to know when employees are waiving breaks.
Lastly, there has been noteworthy litigation in California over meal and rest breaks, including three recent cases:
Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court
- Ensuring employees take meal breaks
Donohue v. AMN Services, Inc.
Ferra v. Loews Hollywood Hotel, LLC
- Payment of missed breaks at regular rate of pay
Employers can view the entire meal and rest breaks webinar for details on these cases, as well as practical scenarios and best practices.
While employee meal and rest breaks help cultivate an environment where workers can flourish, complying with the associated laws has become increasingly complex.
This is especially true in California. But, regardless, employers will want to monitor the laws and their existing procedures to maintain compliance.