When do you have to pay employees for breaks?

female in lab coat taking a break

We know employers across the country are confused about breaks. Maybe an employee has told you that you are required to provide more breaks, or you’ve heard about complicated break laws in the news and are worried one may apply to you.

You want to know if you are required to provide employees with breaks and, if so, how many? For how long? And are you required to pay for them? We’re here to tell you to stop stressing. For most employers, there is one simple rule you should remember: if the break lasts 20 minutes or less, it should be paid (and considered as time worked for overtime purposes).

Guidelines for Offering Breaks

This rule does not mean that you are required to provide your employees with an unlimited amount of paid 20-minute breaks, nor does it mean that you cannot discipline your employees for taking excessive breaks. In fact, federal law does not require that you provide your employees with any breaks, other than a reasonable amount of time to use the restroom or eat a snack. For most employers, it is within your discretion to create the break schedule that works best for your business and your employees.

Now, here’s the catch: if you live in a state with special break and meal-period laws (e.g. California and New York), this rule still applies to you, but so do other, more specific requirements. Make sure you work with an HR specialist to ensure that you get things right because the penalties for wage violations can be severe. The good news is that these state-specific laws tend to be pretty straightforward—the trick is making sure your management team is diligent in enforcing them.

The Benefits of Breaks

Now that we’ve gotten the law out of the way, let’s talk about real-life application. Breaks are essential to productivity. Sometimes a five-minute break is all an employee needs to come back to a task with newfound concentration. And, while you don’t want to micro-manage, you do want to set clear expectations so employees know where the boundaries are.

Here is our HR pro-tip: Breaks are not the enemy – unclear expectations are.

Create a clearly written, easy-to-understand break and meal-period policy. When you see an employee taking a break during their shift, assume they are doing so in good faith with your policy, unless and until they prove you wrong.  Then, document violations and implement corrective action. Simple enough, right?

To summarize, a few states have very specific break laws. If your business is located in one of these states, you should work with an HR specialist to make sure you are in compliance. If you are not located in one of these states, all you have to worry about is federal law and, in this case, federal law is pretty simple: if the break lasts 20 minutes or less, it should be paid.     


This post was authored by CEDR Compliance Officer Nora Gustafson.


Jun 3, 2019

Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and is not intended to provide legal advice or replace individual guidance about a specific issue with an attorney or HR expert. The information on this page is general human resources guidance that is believed to be current as of the date of publication. Note that CEDR is not a law firm, and as the law is always changing, you should consult with a qualified attorney or HR expert who is familiar with all of the facts of your situation before making a decision about any human resources or employment law matter.
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