Are employers legally required to give you breaks?

While in my late teens and early 20’s, I was employed in all sorts of businesses and had various jobs. One thing that I remember is that we always were allowed a 15 minute break every 4 hours and at least half-hour lunch break during an 8 hour day. Also, we were paid for the 15-minute breaks, but not for the lunches. It seemed pretty coincidental that all of my employers had the same policy. So I think that I just assumed that it was a federal or New Jersey law.

Now that I’m a professional, I notice that nobody takes their breaks every 4 hours. So, of course, to maintain my good standing within my company I don’t either.

But I’m curious of whether the breaks and the lunch break are really laws or just business conventions. If they are, can someone supply me with the statute numbers?

Thanks in advance.

IANALL…but I believe breaks are only required by law for minors. Employers give them because they want to keep their employees.

A lot depends on what kind of business is it, and how many hours a week you’re working, and what kind of union contract you have, if any.

Generally, if you’re working in the fast food industry, there aren’t any mandates for breaks. You are entirely at the mercy of your employer. Full-time employees usually get more coffee breaks than part-time teenagers.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the blue-collar unions, especially those dealing with factory assembly lines, and things like coal mining and delivering mail. Those generally have quite strict requirements, and you usually must take all possible coffee and lunch breaks, not only because “hey, we walked a picket line so’s you guys could have those breaks!” but also because of OSHA guidelines concerning fatigue. If you’re tired, you’re more likely to have your fingers get caught in the machinery.


What breaks you’re entitled to is a function of state law. In New York, IIRC, the law used to be that you were permitted a fifteen-minute break every four hours. Permitted is the wrong word, actually; you were required to take them, even if you didn’t want to. I haven’t wored in or researched New York law for some time, and I think it may have changed since then, but other states have their own rules. This has nothing to do with your age (although most states have more stringent protections for minors as well).

The reason you don’t notice this anymore is that in most states, professional and managerial workers are not covered by these laws. Therefore, if the New York law requires a break every four hours, that means teenagers slinging burgers or working at The Gap get their breaks. White-collar professionals do not have to be given them if the employer doesn’t want to.

law-school graduate

It’s a requirement that varies from state to state. It’s not federally mandated except as noted below. Many states have websites for their departments of labor online. What state are you interested in?

Generally, employers are not required to provide employees with breaks or lunch periods. They’re considered benefits. Breaks are mandatory if you’re a minor or if you work in the transportation industry, or operational safety requires it. In general, if state laws mandate break periods, it’s 15 minutes every 4 hours for bathroom breaks, et cetera, and 30 minutes every 6 or 8 hours for lunch. Anything more or less is a benefit.

Actually, I wouldn’t consider less break time a benefit. :slight_smile:

Federal Law (The Fair Labor Standards Act) does not require breaks, although it does require that employees be paid for overtime, unless they are “exempt” employees. An exempt employee is “any employee employed in a bona fide executive, administrative or professional capacity . . . or in the capacity as outside salesman” who is paid on a “salary basis.” (An extremely detailed analysis of what constitutes an “exempt” employee can be found here.)

In addition to the Federal overtime requirements, many states have strict rules about meals and breaks. These rules generally apply only to “non-exempt” employees. I am in the State of California, and I was once a “non-exempt” employee. I had to fill out a timesheet, take specified meal periods and breaks, and be paid overtime if I worked over a prescribed number of hours. Several years ago I moved into a salaried “exempt” position. As an exempt employee, I get no official breaks, and I’m required to work as long and as hard as necessary to fulfill my job requirements, with no overtime. Of course, I no longer have to fill out time sheets, either.

evilhanz - Some people do consider less break time a benefit, if it means that they can complete projects sooner and not have to work overtime. I’ve been in situations where people were begging not to have to take an hour long dinner break at 6:00, because they wanted to finish their work and go home at 7:00, rather than coming back from break at 7:00 and having to work until 8:00. Under California law, this was not allowed.

Here in Illinois you are allowed one 10 minute PAID break for every 4 hours worked.

In addition the courts have routinely held that breaks MUST be taken away from your work areaas. If not the employer is liable to pay you for the work.

For every 6 hours worked you are required to take a minimum 20 minute lunch which may or may not be paid depending on your employer in addition to your breaks.
Employers can require longer lunches if they so desire.

Courts have routinely ruled it is the EMPLOYER’S not the EMPLOYEE’S responsiblity to enforce this. (example: Well if you wanted your break you should’ve taken it. This was to prevent employers from pressuring people NOT to take them)

Just wanted to point out another difference- In the jobs I’ve had where I was entitled to breaks (relieved of all duties), I also couldn’t use the restroom or get coffee or a soda except on those breaks. Since I’ve had professional jobs, I don’t get those 15 minute “Sorry, I’m on my break” breaks,but that doesn’t mean I can’t leave my desk except at lunch.

Up here in Canada, the food chain I used to work for (as (and still am) a minor) they’d give us 15 minute breaks per 2 hours work. Lunches + Suppers were 1 hour long.

Here in Virginia we’ve got that 15-minute-break-per-four-hours-work rule, as well. My employer even had to enforce it on a group of us years ago. We’d wander in at 10 AM, and work straight through to 6 PM, eating at our desks. The president of the company told us about the 15-minute break thing, probably because he was sick of us coming in late, normal office hours being 8 to 5, and figured we wouldn’t want to stay later. He was wrong. We took both 15-minute breaks back-to-back as a “lunch” at around 1, and split at 6:30, instead of 6. Ah, the good old days…