Labor and Employment

Meal and Rest Breaks at Work

By Lisa Guerin, ​J.D., Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley
You may be entitled to paid or unpaid breaks throughout your workday.

Does your employer give you meal or rest breaks during the workday? Although it’s common for employers to do so, it may not be legally required. Under federal law, employers do not have to provide any breaks for employees to eat, rest, or use the bathroom. However, employers that choose to provide breaks may need to pay employees for this time. And, some states require employers to give meal breaks, rest breaks, or both.

Federal Law on Meal and Rest Breaks

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets the minimum wage, requires employers to pay overtime, and regulates child labor, among other things. It also dictates what counts as work time, for which an employee must be paid. Although the FLSA doesn’t require employers to give employees any breaks, it does require employers to pay for certain breaks that they voluntarily provide.

Under federal law, employers must pay employees for short breaks that last 20 minutes or less. So if your employer gives you two ten-minute breaks during your shift, you are entitled to be paid for that time. Your employer must also pay you for breaks of any length if you have to do any work during that time. For example, if you get a 30-minute meal break—but you need to sit at your desk and greet customers—you must be paid for that time. (For more on the FLSA, see our FAQ on wage and hour laws.)

State Laws on Rest Breaks

A handful of states require employers to give employees a ten-minute rest break for every four hours they work. These breaks must be paid. The states that currently require employers to provide rest breaks are:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Kentucky
  • Minnesota
  • Nevada
  • Oregon, and
  • Washington.

Illinois also requires employers to provide rest breaks, but the law applies only to employees working as hotel room attendants. Vermont requires employers to provide employees with reasonable opportunities to eat and use the restroom throughout the workday.

More states require employers to provide rest breaks to minors. If you employ anyone who has not yet reached the age of 18, make sure to check your state’s rules on breaks for younger workers.

State Laws on Meal Breaks

Less than half of the states require employers to provide meal breaks to employees. These breaks may be unpaid, as long as employees don’t work during this time.

Commonly, state law requires employers to allow employees to take an unpaid meal break once they have worked five hours. In some states, employers may provide an on-duty meal break if the employee’s job requires it or if only a small number of employees are working. However, on-duty meal breaks must be paid.

In a few states, employees are entitled to another meal break if they work a certain number of hours. For example, in California, employees are entitled to a second unpaid meal break if they work more than ten hours in a day. Some states also regulate when meal breaks must be offered. For example, some states prohibit employers from requiring employees to take their breaks at the start or end of their shifts.

As is true of rest breaks, meal break requirements are often stricter for minors. Check with your state labor department to find out the rules.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Does my employer have to give me periodic rest breaks if I have a medical condition that requires such breaks?
  • Can my employer require me to take both of my rest breaks back-to-back?
  • What should I do if my employer is making me work during my meal break, but isn’t paying me for it?
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