Meals and Rest Breaks: Do I Have to Provide Them to Employees?

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To eat, or not to eat? That is the question—but the answer isn’t as straightforward as many business owners would like.

Per FLSA, the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers do not need to offer meal or rest breaks to their employees. In most cases, however, compassionate business owners feel that providing a bit of respite during the workday is the right thing to do. If you’re going to offer employees meal breaks, it’s critical to understand the state and federal laws about paid and unpaid break periods.

We’ve created this guide to help you navigate the guidelines so you can offer your employees some relief without breaking the law. Continue reading to learn how to configure a state and federally-compliant rest and meal break policy.

Short Breaks vs. Meal Breaks

The length of breaks makes a significant difference in terms of your business’s payroll. Per federal law, a break lasting 20 minutes or less must be paid and count toward accruing overtime. We consider these rest breaks.

In contrast, meal breaks last 30 minutes or more. In most cases, a meal period must be unpaid. With that said, employers must relieve employees of all duties during their unpaid meal breaks.

If your employees eat lunch at their desks or are responsible for any work-related duties during their break, you must pay them for their time.

State vs. Federal Break Laws

Many states default to federal policy regarding rest and meal breaks. Others may have unique guidelines.

In certain states, meal or rest breaks are a requirement. In others, meal breaks are only a requirement for minor workers. Civil union collective bargaining agreements sometimes dictate break requirements, regardless of state or federal laws.

The following states exclusively follow federal guidelines for meal and rest breaks:

  • Arizona
  • New Mexico
  • Texas
  • Missouri
  • Arkansas
  • Mississippi
  • Georgia
  • South Carolina
  • Idaho
  • Wyoming
  • Montana
  • South Dakota

All other states have at least one law in place mandating breaks for minor or adult workers (or both). If you live in a state with unique break laws, a payroll specialist can help ensure you are compensating employees correctly.

Be aware that you cannot force or require an employee to take a break. However, it’s essential to document their refusal for your records.

All of the above only applies to non-exempt employees.

The Truth About Meal and Rest Breaks

The difference between twenty and thirty-minute rest breaks may not seem like much in the short term, but that time can add up quickly. The best way to avoid fines and preserve your reputation is to ensure you understand state and federal break laws. If this impacts your payroll, a payroll specialist can help.

At Valor Payroll Services, we specialize in helping small business owners make the best choices for their companies. We’ll help you navigate every aspect of payroll, from breaks to tax reporting. Reach out today to see how a family-oriented professional can transform your payroll experience.

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Christina Hageny

President - Valor Payroll Solutions

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Christina Hageny

President - Valor Payroll Solutions

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