Legal breaks at work – what employees are legally entitled to

If you work 8 hours a day without taking any breaks, you won’t be performing to the best of your ability after a while. The Yerkes-Dodson law suggests that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal (stress), but only up to a point, after which it decreases. You can read more on this in our article on the Pareto principle. Here are some reason why we should prioritize breaks at work. They:

  • keep us from getting bored and losing focus
  • help us retain information and make connections
  • help us reevaluate our goals

In short, an employee’s health will suffer if they continue to work for prolonged periods without any rest. For this reason, it makes sense for employees to take breaks. However, only a handful of states currently require employers to allow employees to take rest breaks throughout the workday.

What constitutes a break?

The purpose of a break is to interrupt working time and to promote and maintain the employee’s recovery and health. In addition, taking regular breaks can improve an employee’s long-term performance. For this reason, employers should be willing to let their employees take regular breaks, but many states don’t have any laws governing them. We’ll go into this is more detail in the upcoming paragraph.

The different kinds of breaks

Legal breaks at work come in different shapes and sizes. Although they vary depending on which state the business is in, here’s a general overview of the main types:

Rest break

These are usually 5 to 20 minutes long to give the employee a bit of rest, and to enable them to grab a coffee or snack. A short time away from work tasks will help their efficiency and focus. Breaks of up to 20 minutes are paid for and count toward the number of hours worked. Only nine states, however, require employers to provide some non-meal breaks for adults.

Meal break

Meal breaks tend to last at least 30 minutes and employees are generally entitled to them after working more than five or six hours at a time. The employee doesn’t get paid for these breaks if they are completely relieved of all work duties.

One day in seven rest

Employees working in factories or retail establishments must receive one day off (consisting of the full 24 hours) per calendar week, unless there’s an exception (for example, they waived the right to have the day off). However, the employer is legally allowed to schedule someone to work 12 days in a row within a two-week period if the days of rest are the first and last days of this period.


The Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide a reasonable amount of break time for an employee to express breast milk (usually until the child is one year old). A room must be provided for this (it cannot be a restroom) and must be in close proximity to the work area. Twenty-four states have laws protecting nursing mothers at work.

Disabilities and medical needs

Sometimes health conditions require work breaks, for example, diabetics need to eat every so often to keep their blood sugar levels up, and may need to inject themselves at work. Some health conditions mean frequent trips to the bathroom, medication breaks, or longer resting periods, so talk to your health care provider about what you’re entitled to and let your employer know if you think this may concern you.

Legal breaks at work according to the FLSA

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is a federal law, which determines minimum wage, overtime pay eligibility, recordkeeping, and child labor standards affecting full-time and part-time workers in the private sector and in federal, state, and local governments.

The FLSA does not require employers to provide rest or meal breaks to employees. This is because when rest or meal breaks are provided, it places restrictions on employers. To counteract this, federal law requires that employers pay for any breaks that are 20 minutes or less.

Meal breaks lasting half an hour or more don’t need to be paid if the employee takes the break properly i.e. doesn’t do any of their work tasks in this time.

A survey found that even though employees are entitled to breaks, they still choose to not take them. Employers can be fined if employees are being clocked out for a lunch break every day that they aren’t even taking. Another problem arises when employees attempt to take lunch breaks, but “something comes up” and they end up completing work-related tasks during them. If this is the case, the employees need to be paid as this doesn’t constitute a break.

It’s recommended that employers use time and attendance software so they can track employee breaks, but they should make sure that no employees are simply clocking out for their lunch break, but are continuing to work.

Different regulations in different states

Each state has a different idea of how much break time (if any) an employee is entitled to. For example, the FLSA doesn’t require employers to provide meal or extended rest breaks (as mentioned above), but states can decide individually what they want to do. Less than half of US states (only 20 and two U.S. territories) require companies to provide a meal or rest break. In many of these states, anyone who works over 6 hours consecutively is required 30 minutes to eat or rest. You can click on each state to see what the break regulations are at the end of this article.

For example, in California the break regulations are very long and very detailed. California state law requires multiple breaks for its employees and it can become extremely expensive for employers who don’t adhere to the laws. If an employer fails to provide the required meal periods, they must pay the employee an additional hour of pay for each workday that the meal period was not provided. It’s also possible for an employee to waive a break, but mutual written consent from the employee and the employer is sometimes needed.

Idaho and Kansas, on the other hand, have no meal or break regulations. Some states such as Iowa and Indiana only provide breaks if the employee is a minor (someone who is not yet 18 years old).

Some states (e.g. Wisconsin and New York) have a “one day of rest in seven” rule, meaning that businesses with factories or mercantile establishments are required to provide their employees with a day of rest. This break must be 24 hours long, every calendar week, unless the employee has voluntarily waived the “one day in seven” rest period in writing. There are, however, some exceptions: janitors, those working at hotels or restaurants, those responsible for food production (e.g. cheese and dairy products), those looking after live animals, etc.

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