When on the job, it is not unusual to need to handle medical issues, use the restroom or become fatigued. Thus, most employers provide at least one short break for their employees. However, this is a courtesy under federal law, and state laws that do exist vary widely on how long the breaks should be.
The Fair Labor Standards Act
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is a federal regulation that provides guidelines on how much and under what conditions an employee may work. Although this law regulates aspects of employment such as wages, overtime and record keeping, it is silent on the topic of work breaks. So, as of 2011, there is no federal regulation that dictates how long a work break should be, and in fact, no federal law requires employers to give meal and rest breaks to all employees. The law does require nursing mothers to be given periods to express milk if desired but does not set a time frame for those breaks.
OSHA and Industry Regulations
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established standards designed to prevent injury or death while on the job, including the spread of disease. Working extended periods without eating or resting can be physically problematic for some individuals. For instance, most people need to use the restroom within an eight-hour period, and diabetics may have issues with blood sugar if they cannot stop briefly for a snack or meal. For these reasons, as of 2011, 25 states have laws for work and meal breaks that follow both OSHA and industry recommendations. The break periods vary by state, but are typically 5 to 30 minutes in length.
Regardless of whether break and meal laws exist in your state, you have the right to negotiate with your employer about your break time. Many employers are more than happy to extend break periods if you can make a case for how the breaks actually improve overall quality or productivity on the job. The employer's policy on breaks and meals should be spelled out in writing in a formal employee handbook and, ideally, also in your employment contract if you are contracted. The fact employers may negotiate with employees for break-period length means that workers can encounter a wide variance in break policies.
Employers often negotiate breaks with industry unions and indicate the time allowed for breaks and meals in union contracts. However, nonunion employees who are part of the bargaining unit -- that is, who share similar duties and workspace to union members -- may be entitled to the same break and meal time as union members get, as stipulated in state right-to-work laws.