Are Employers Required to Provide Breaks?

Are you legally required to offer breaks (paid or unpaid) to employees? The answer depends on these criteria.



I was recently asked if employers have to offer breaks to employees. The answer probably sounded like the most canned response an HR professional can give: it depends.

There’s no federal law that requires you to offer breaks, but that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. While providing rest periods is generally good business practice, you may be required to provide breaks based on the following:

  • Which state your company is located;
  • How old the employee is;
  • What the employees’ job duties are;
  • What your company’s regular practice does for breaks; and/or
  • How long the employee is scheduled for work that day.

Because there is no federal law that requires you to offer breaks, everything is regulated by state laws. These laws have all of the “it depends” answers intertwined into individual state regulations. For reference, here are links to the DOL’s state-by-state resources for rest and meal periods:

Paid Breaks vs Unpaid Breaks

What the Department of Labor (DOL) does say is that if your company offers short breaks (meaning less than 20 minutes), those breaks should be paid and included in the sum of hours worked when calculating overtime.

In cases when the break goes longer than the allotted break time, it doesn’t need to be paid if you, the employer, have “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 be punished.” (Source: DOL)

The DOL also emphasizes that breaks for meals are only unpaid if an employee is completely relieved of duties. Answering phones, responding to emails, or being forced to sit at a machine during a meal break is not considered a bona fide break. That is compensable work time.

As a point of clarification, breaks are for nonexempt employees. Exempt employees are expected to get their job done without having to track hours and account for overtime, so there’s no need to offer exempt employees a break.

For questions about rest periods or other HR matters, please contact your certified Stratus HR expert. Not a current Stratus HR client? Book a free consultation and our team will contact you shortly!

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