Here’s some food for thought: survey data shows that nearly a third of U.S. workers skip lunch. Of those that actually do take a meal break, 34 percent eat at their desk. Though much has been made about Americans’ apparent “failure to lunch,” what do employment laws have to say on the matter?
If you’re looking for a definitive answer, sorry to spoil your appetite. As is often the case in HR compliance, federal and state laws offer contradictory guidance here. While the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) doesn’t require employers to provide employees with meal breaks, it does define whether they should be compensable. Further complicating matters, nearly half of states do require access to lunch breaks after a certain number of hours worked.
Below we’ve summed up all of the federal and state laws covering lunch breaks. Bon appétit.
The FLSA is one of the most expansive (and important) pieces of HR and payroll legislation in history. When it was passed 80 years ago, the law set a minimum wage, established rules for overtime pay, standardized record-keeping, and made child labor illegal. When it comes to lunch breaks, however, the otherwise persnickety law is surprisingly mum.
That said, while the FLSA doesn’t require employers to offer meal breaks, it does offer guidance on whether they should be compensable. The law’s so-called “20 minute rule” requires that employers still pay workers for short breaks lasting between 5-20 minutes. Anything beyond this treads into “bona fide meal period” territory, meaning it doesn’t need to be paid for.
While meal break rules are scant on the federal level, a number of state and territorial jurisdictions have stepped in to fill the void. As of this writing, 21 U.S. states enforce their own regulations. Below we’ve summarized each one’s rules.
Before jumping in, note that all meal breaks are unpaid (unless we’ve noted otherwise). Also keep in mind that some states regulate rest and meal breaks separately. If you’re ever unsure of your jurisdiction’s policy, visit your state labor department website or consult with employment counsel.
Most private businesses are required to offer 30 minute meal breaks after 5 hours, except in cases where an individual’s workday lasts 6 hours or less. If an individual is required to stay on-premises during their meal, the break should be paid for—even if he or she isn’t performing work at that time. A full list of special cases and exceptions can be found on the California Department of Industrial Relations website.
Employers in the retail, service, food, and medical industries are required to offer a 30 minute meal break after 5 consecutive hours. If an employee needs to remain on-call during their meal, that time must be paid for.
All employers, regardless of industry, must offer a 30 minute meal break for shifts lasting 7 ½ or more hours. The timing of the break is also regulated; employees must take their meal between the first and last two hours of their shift. These rules do not apply to businesses that already provide 30 minute, paid meal breaks.
Nearly all workers, excluding teachers and those covered by collective bargaining agreement or other special employment compact, are entitled to a 30 minute meal break for shifts lasting 7 ½ or more hours. The break must take place between the first and final two hours of the shift.
All businesses located in a county with a population of 3 million or more must offer a 20 minute meal break for shifts lasting 7 ½ or more hours. The break must happen within the first five hours of the shift.
All businesses must offer employees a “reasonable period for a meal” between the third and fifth hour of their shift. Individuals covered by collective bargaining agreement or other special employment compact may be exempt from this requirement.
Employees are entitled to a 30 minute meal break after 6 consecutive hours of work. An employee, in writing, may opt to waive this right. Small businesses with three or fewer “on-duty” workers at a time are exempt from these rules.
All retail businesses must provide workers with a 15 minute meal break for 4-6 consecutive hours of work. In cases where shifts last longer than 6 hours, employees are entitled to a 30 minute break. The state’s definition of a “retail business” can be found here.
Nearly all businesses must offer employees 30 minute meal breaks for shifts lasting more than 6 hours. Certain manufacturers, like iron works and paper mills, are exempt from these requirements. At the discretion of the Attorney General, a collective bargaining agreement can also exempt a business.
Employees working 8 or more hours are entitled to “sufficient time to eat a meal.” Agricultural workers, or those under a collective bargaining agreement, are considered exempt from this requirement.
Certain employees, including those working on an assembly line or in a workshop, may be entitled to a 30 minute meal break for every 8 hours worked. Employees must be allowed to take this break off-premises.
Businesses with two or more employees are required to offer 30 minute meal breaks for shifts lasting 8 or more hours. A business may be exempted from these requirements at the discretion of the state’s labor commissioner.
All employers must offer a 30 minute meal break after five consecutive hours of work. If an employee is unable to leave their station and must work while eating, he or she must be paid for that time.
All workers, assuming they work 6 or more hours, are entitled to a 30 minute “noonday meal,” or lunch break between the hours of 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM. Individuals with shifts that start before 11:00 AM and end past 7:00 PM must be allowed a second meal break. Factory workers are entitled to a full hour lunch break. Exceptions may be approved on a case-by-case basis by the New York State Department of Labor.
As long as two or more employees are “on duty,” all employees are entitled to 30 minute meal breaks for shifts exceeding 5 hours. This requirement can be overruled by a collective bargaining agreement.
All businesses must offer employees a 30 minute lunch break for every 6 or more hours worked. If the shift is under 7 hours long, the break must be taken between the second and fifth hour worked. In cases where an employee’s shift lasts longer than 7 hours, the break must be taken between the third and sixth hour worked.
Employees are entitled to either a 20 minute or 30 minute meal break during a 6 or 8 hour shift, respectively. Health care facilities and businesses with three or fewer active employees per shift are exempt from these requirements.
Most businesses are required to offer 30 minute meal breaks for 6 or more consecutive hours of work. Employers may be exempted from this requirement if the nature of the work performed “provides for ample opportunity to rest or take an appropriate break.”
The majority of state businesses must offer a 30 minute lunch break for a shift lasting more than 5 hours. Employees working more than 3 hours beyond their usual shift are entitled to an additional 30 minute lunch break. Certain employers, including newspapers and farms, may be exempted from these rules.
Employees are entitled to a 20 minute meal break when their shift lasts six or more hours.
That’s a lot to chew on. Note the above only pertains to adult workers—35 jurisdictions offer more robust provisions that apply to minors. Also keep in mind that U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam have their own labor rules as well.
Andy Przystanski is Content Marketing Manager at Namely, the all-in-one HR, payroll, and benefits platform built for today's employees. Connect with Andy and the Namely team on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
Get the latest news from Namely about HR, payroll, and benefits.
We send out emails once a week with the latest from the Namely Blog, HR News, and other industry happenings. Expect to see that in your inbox soon!