When times are busy, employees occasionally work without taking a break or lunch. However, too much skipping of required rest periods may make workers tired and adversely affect job performance. The Department of Labor is the federal agency responsible for defining work rules. They do this primarily through several regulations, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, which can specify the legality of working without breaks. States can also weigh in on with their own rules and laws.
The Fair Labor Standards Act defines work hours and how they are compensated. However, it does not require coffee or lunch breaks. Thus, working eight hours without a rest period violates no national statutes. However, if employers do offer breaks of five to 15 minutes as part of the work day, federal law does consider them compensable. If employees exceed the specified break periods, they are not compensated and may be punished by the employer. Meal periods lasting 30 minutes or more are not considered part of the work day and are not compensable.
State Paid Rest Period Laws
Nine states mandate paid rest periods for adult employees who are employed by private industry: California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. Laws vary according to location. In general for these states, working eight hours straight without a paid break is illegal. Employers who violate state laws are subject to fines and sanctions. States not on this list don't mandate paid rest periods, but they may mandate unpaid ones.
State Meal Period Laws
Over 22 jurisdictions have laws regarding meal periods for adults working in private industry. These include all the states with rest period laws as well as Connecticut, Tennessee, Guam and Puerto Rico. About 35 jurisdictions have separate laws about meal periods for minors. In some cases, such as in Delaware, employees require a half-hour meal period after as little as the first two hours, but only if they work 7.5 consecutive hours or more. Working in these states without taking these mandated meal periods is illegal.
California provides a useful example of mandated rest and meal breaks that is often emulated by employers throughout the country. For those working 3.5 hours or more, paid ten-minute breaks are required every four hours. This applies to most industries including agriculture and household employment, but excludes professional actors, sheepherders and personal attendants. For meal periods, California requires a half-hour meal after five hours, unless the work day is finished in six hours or less, and both employer and worker waive the meal. This is only compensated if the employee cannot be totally free of all duties during the period. Otherwise, the time is not normally paid. The rules apply to most industries including agriculture and households, but do not cover workers in wholesale baking, broadcasting or motion pictures.