Are Employers Required by Law to Offer Lunch Breaks?
Recently released research from Robert Half shows a growing trend among American workers who appear to be taking less and less time for a traditional lunch break. The survey leads to the inevitable question of whether employers are required by law to offer lunch breaks. To answer that question, one must look at both federal and state laws.
Before getting to the law, let us look at some of the results of the research. According to Robert Half, the top three cities with the longest average lunch breaks are San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami. The bottom three with the shortest lunch breaks are Salt Lake City, Des Moines, and Cincinnati.
Moving on, let’s look at what people actually do during their lunch breaks. Robert Half’s research showed the following seven priorities for U.S. workers:
- Social media/surfing the web – 52%
- Dealing with personal e-mails and calls – 51%
- Socializing with other workers – 47%
- Running errands – 32%
- Reading – 32%
- Exercising – 30%
- Working – 29%
It is somewhat fascinating to see that just under one-third of U.S. workers spend their lunch time working. Whether that’s good or bad depends on your perspective. At any rate, the Robert Half research indicates that fewer workers are enjoying the traditional lunch hour these days. Lunch breaks are shrinking in terms of length, and employees are not necessarily completely breaking away from work during that time.
What the Law Says
Moving on to what the law actually says about lunch breaks, payroll provider BenefitMall says that the Fair Labor Standards Act does not mandate employers offer their workers a lunch break, either paid or unpaid. In simple terms, employers are not required by federal law to provide breaks of any kind. However, 20 states have implemented their own lunch break laws.
Let’s take Nebraska, for example. Employers in the Cornhusker State are required to provide a lunch break equal to one half-hour for each eight-hour shift worked. This applies to all businesses and industries unless a collective bargaining agreement stipulates otherwise.
Nebraska’s law is pretty straightforward. The laws in other states are a lot more complicated. California is at the top of the list. Their lunch break rules vary depending on the length of a worker’s shift, the time of day that shift occurs, the worker’s health, and even the industry the company is involved in.
What It Means to Employers
According to the OSHA website, employers are mandated by federal law to honor all state lunch break regulations. That means if a state law allows workers to take a certain amount of break time for lunch, whether paid or unpaid, the employer must allow that time be taken completely free of work.
In the 30 states that have no lunch break laws in place, employers are free to do as they choose in this regard. They can offer absolutely no breaks if that’s what they want to do. However, such a practice is not generally recommended. As OSHA so clearly explains on its website, “it has become a common practice and reasonable expectation for employers to offer unpaid lunch breaks to employees who work for a certain number of hours.”
Employers in states that do have lunch break laws in place are obligated to follow those laws. It is the responsibility of the employer to know and understand what state law requires. It is also incumbent upon employers to know that laws vary between the states. A multi-state operation would be required to follow state laws based on where workplace locations are found.