Legal Insights on Employee Meal and Rest Breaks

By Rudman Winchell Attorney Matthew M. Cobb

Most employees enjoy lunch breaks and perhaps the occasional rest break during the work day. In recent years, however, technology and the seemingly constant demands of the workplace have made it more difficult for employees to disconnect from their jobs during these times. It should come as no surprise then that a number of lawsuits over the past few years have been filed against employers claiming that employees (hundreds at a time in some cases) have been made or allowed to work through their lunch or rest breaks without compensation. A basic understanding of the laws and principles concerning hours worked in the context of rest and meal breaks is important for employers who want to avoid becoming entangled in such actions.

By statutory definition the term “employ” generally means that an employer “suffers or permits” someone else (an employee) “to work.” Work not requested or asked for, but “suffered or permitted” to be performed is work time that must be paid for by the employer. For example, an employee may voluntarily continue to work through a lunch break to finish an assigned task or to correct errors in work project. If the employer automatically deducts this period of time from the employees paycheck, assuming the employee took a lunch break, or otherwise fails to compensate the employee for such time, the employer may be liable to the employee for unpaid wages. Exposure can dramatically increase if this is a regular occurrence. If an employee worked through his or her lunch break without pay every day, five days a week, for two straight years, the employer could face liability for hours of unpaid wages.

The United States Department of Labor also takes certain positions concerning the compensability of short rest breaks (as opposed to extended lunch breaks). According to U.S. DOL Fact Sheet #22, rest periods of short duration, usually 20 minutes or less, are common in the business community and should usually be paid for as working time. The DOL generally takes the position that these short periods must be counted as hours worked. On the other hand, unauthorized extensions of authorized work breaks need not be counted as hours worked in the DOL’s view when the employer has expressly and unambiguously communicated to the employee that the authorized break may only last for a specific length of time, that any extension of the break is contrary to the employer’s rules, and any extension of the break will subject the employee to discipline. Similarly, the DOL believes that bona fide meal periods (typically 30 minutes or more) generally need not be compensated as work time. The DOL makes clear, however, that the employee must be completely relieved from duty during the lunch break, in others words, not “suffered or permitted to work” during this time.

One other point employer’s should be aware of is that Maine law generally requires employers to provide employees with a 30 minute rest break during the day; in other words, it may not be legal to simply eliminate rest or meal breaks altogether. Title 26, section 601 of the Maine Revised Statutes provides that, in general, non-exempt, hourly employees may not be employed or permitted to work for more than 6 consecutive hours at one time unless the employee is given the opportunity to take at least 30 consecutive minutes of rest time, which may be used by the employee as a meal period.

In light of the issues discussed above, employers should carefully review their compensation policies and practices concerning lunch breaks and rest breaks to avoid exposure to unpaid wages claims. Implementing and enforcing workplace rules and policies concerning rest breaks and lunch breaks and unauthorized work during those periods may also be useful in addresses these legal issues.

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