Of the states which do have break laws, some have employment laws which cover all employees; others cover specific industries and classifications of workers. Maryland, for example, has a "Shift Break Law" that covers some retail workers. Paid rest breaks are currently required by state law in California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Vermont and Washington.
About half of U.S. states provide for meal breaks. The states which do regulate meal breaks typically provide for 1/2 hour after every 5 or 6 hours worked.
How Many Breaks?
There are no federal regulations that determine a set number of breaks per number of hours worked. Some states have employment laws which determine how many breaks from a work an employee is entitled to during a shift. For example, in Minnesota time to use the nearest restroom must be provided within each four consecutive hours of work. California provides a paid ten minute rest period for every four hours worked. Vermont doesn't specify the length of time of the break, but says "Employees are to be given 'reasonable opportunities' during work periods to eat and use toilet facilities."
When breaks aren't stipulated by law, employers may have company policies in place that provide for a certain amount of break time per work shift. Union collective bargaining agreements may also provide for breaks from work.
For example, an employee could be given a 30 minute lunch break (unpaid) and two 15 minute breaks (paid) during each eight hour shift. Or, as another example, an employee could have a 20 minute break in the morning and an hour for lunch. For a six hour shift, an employee could receive two 10 minute breaks or a 20 minute lunch break. Another option is giving an employee a break after a certain amount of hours of work. For example, a fifteen minute break after every 3 hours of work. When company policy determines break periods, the amount and duration of breaks are set by the employer.
Paid Breaks from Work
Because breaks for meals are not work time employers are not required to pay employees for meal breaks. However, employees must be paid for short breaks from work which typically range from 5 - 20 minutes. These breaks are considered by federal law as compensable work hours that are included in the total number of hours worked during the work week. Break time is also considered in determining whether overtime was worked. So, to calculate overtime pay working hours plus break time would be added together.
Company policy may provide for additional breaks. Breaks may be listed in the company's employee handbook, if there is one. Or, breaks could be provided on an informal basis. In those cases, there may be no defined break periods. A manager may simply tell employees they can take a break for a few minutes.
Breaks for Nursing Mothers
The Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child's birth. Here's more on breaks for nursing mothers.
Check With Your State Department of Labor
If you are concerned that you're not receiving the correct amount of break time, check with your State Department of Labor for information on break time regulations.
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