Am I liable for accidents on employees’ paid breaks?

If an employee leaves the premises on a paid break, is the company liable if they’re in an accident? Short answer: Yes, the employer could be considered liable unless they take preventive steps to mitigate their risk.

Here’s a little background on the subject: In 1985, there was a case (HOLLY HILL FRUIT PRODUCTS v. KRIDER) involving a worker who left work to purchase cigarettes from the store across the street. He was hit by a car in the process of returning to work. At the time, the employee was still on the clock.

Employees of Holly Hill Fruit frequently went to this convenience store to purchase food, drinks, and cigarettes during working hours, even though the employer offered an on-site snack bar. Holly Hill’s plant superintendent explained that off-premises trips were discouraged and that employees were supposed to “clock out” before leaving the premises. But the court found no proof that this company policy had ever been communicated or enforced.

The worker took the case to court after being denied medical and temporary disability benefits. The court sided with the worker because he was injured during a refreshment break and what he was doing was not in violation of any company rule.

Three steps to reduce risk of liability when employees leave company premises.

In the above case, the payout could have been prevented had the employer taken the following steps beforehand:

  1. Create a written company policy that includes the following:
    1. Employees are prohibited from leaving company premises during paid breaks;
    2. Employees who leave company premises for any reason must first clock-out;
    3. Exceptions to this policy must be in writing; and
    4. Any infraction will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination.
  2. Require employees to sign a document confirming they have read and agree to the company policy. This can be included in the employee onboarding process and should be communicated at least annually with employees.
  3. Enforce the company policy with disciplinary action. In order for it to hold up in court, company enforcement needs to be consistent, regardless of who violates the policy, when, or why.
Do employers have to provide paid breaks?

No, as an employer, you’re not required to provide a paid break to employees under the FLSA (exception: minors must have a 30-minute lunch within the first five hours of work and cannot work more than three consecutive hours without a 10-minute break). However, several states have tighter regulations regarding meals and other breaks. If your state doesn’t have regulations pertaining to breaks, know that the federal law governs you.

There are good reasons to offer breaks to employees, even if you’re not required to do so. In jobs involving manual labor, work in harsh environments or conditions (hot or cold weather), or even high-stress roles, encouraging workers to take a breather can be essential for keeping workers safe and elevating productivity. In some physically tasking roles, breaks may also help prevent costly injuries. When short breaks of 5-20 minutes are offered, the FLSA does consider that time to be compensable.

My advice is this: create a policy that allows your workers to have the rest they need but that also keeps your workplace safe from liability. Be sure to include it in your employee manual and communicate it regularly. Remember that your Stratus.hr rep can help with writing your policy, as well as answer any questions you have about managing employees and more. Call or send your questions via email to HR@stratus.hr.

employer liability paid break

Employers should implement these three steps to minimize their liability for accidents that may occur on paid breaks.

Brad Fagergren

Author Brad Fagergren

Brad has been a certified Senior Human Resources Professional (SPHR) since 2010. He services both local and multi-state client companies and is our in-house FMLA expert. Outside of work, you might spot Brad mentoring, chaperoning, watching, or participating in sports.

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