Meal Break Risks Under Federal Wage Laws

Wages LawMissed meal breaks in the workplace are coming under increasing legal scrutiny.

To be clear, an employee has no absolute entitlement to a meal break under federal wage laws (although this may be different under some state laws). But, if an employee is given a meal break period, either the employee must be completely relieved from his or her duties for more than twenty minutes, or the employee must be paid for the break time.

In many instances, employers unintentionally fail to pay employees for compensable meal breaks. In this day of pressure to raise workforce productivity, many employees are called to return to work temporarily during a break, disrupting the time during which the employee is supposed to be completely relieved of duties. As a result, the actual break period does not last the requisite uninterrupted time, and thus the employee legally should be paid. Some employers simply do not recognize this situation, and others have set time clocks to deduct automatically the standard meal break time each day without regard to whether the break period was taken without interruption, or even taken at all.

The problem for employers is compounded because, not only should the employee be paid for the interrupted or untaken meal break, but that time also may push the employee over the threshold for overtime wages for the workweek. If the employer does not pay overtime owed, it potentially has committed two violations.

Unpaid Wages

Additionally, defending unpaid wage claims of this nature are particularly difficult because the employer, admittedly, will not have accurate record of the time actually worked.

The Department of Labor and legal counsel for employees are aware of these compounding problems for employers, and at least in the latter case eagerly will take advantage of these problems. It is not enough that some employers mandate in their policies that a break be taken. The employer must either strictly enforce meal breaks or else monitor employee work time on a daily, case-by-case basis, without automatically deducting time for any scheduled breaks.

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