Can an Employer Deny an Employee a Lunch Break?

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Lunch breaks allow employees the opportunity to eat and take a rest from the stress of work. As there are no federal laws that mandate a meal break for employees, an employer can, in theory, deny employees a lunch break. However, certain conditions may make this an illegal action.

State Laws – Youths

  • State laws may apply to lunch situations for young workers. For example, Oklahoma requires employers to give employees 15 years of age or younger at least one 30-minute break for every five consecutive hours they work or a total of 60 minutes in breaks per eight consecutive hours. ) Ohio statutes specify a 30-minute break for minors under the age of 18 who work at least five hours.

State Laws -- Adults

  • As of 2011, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia had labor laws regarding meal breaks for adult employees. However, the laws do not necessarily apply to all employees. For example, the Illinois statute applies only to room attendants in the hotel industry who work in counties with a population in excess of 3 million. Maine's law applies only to work sites with at least three employees working at the same time. Colorado's meal break law excludes medical professionals and teachers, and Washington statutes exclude numerous occupations, including agricultural employees and domestic workers in a private residence.

Unionized Employees

  • Employees belonging to a collective bargaining unit may have contracts that specify lunch breaks. As long as the provision gives the worker a benefit that is at least equal to any state law, the employer must comply with the contract.

Paying for Lunch Breaks

  • Federal wage laws state the conditions under which an employer may deduct breaks from the employee's pay. If the break is less than 20 minutes, the employer should pay for the time. If the employer does not relieve the employee of all work responsibilities during his lunch break, the employer should pay him for his time. Because overtime laws apply to all hours worked in excess of 40 in the week, an employee denied a lunch break could demand overtime pay.

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