Almost everyone I talk to about this issue is absolutely sure they're entitled to two 15 minute work breaks and one lunch break a day. Almost everyone is wrong. Before you smart off to your boss who's demanding you return to work before you finish your coffee, here are 10 things you need to know about work breaks.
1. No work breaks required by federal law
No federal law requires any work breaks for meals or rest. Need a bathroom break? Not federally required. Can't hold it? Complain to your member of Congress.
2. Meal breaks
Only 20 states (and two U.S. territories) have meal break requirements for adults.
3. Non-meal breaks
Only nine states require some non-meal breaks for adults.
4. Disability and medical accommodation
If you need breaks to accommodate a disability or a worker's compensation injury, then the employer might have to grant them. Sometimes, health conditions require work breaks. For instance, diabetics need to eat periodically and may need an insulin shot while at work. Some medical conditions require breaks for medications, rest periods and frequent bathroom stops. If you think this applies to you, speak to your health care provider about seeking an accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act or intermittent leave for partial days under the Family and Medical Leave Act. If you do need a work break for a medical condition, the best time to seek an accommodation for it is before you run into a disciplinary issue.
5. Nursing mothers
You do have a federal law that protects you. If you're not exempt from overtime pay, and if your employer has at least 50 employees in a 75 mile radius, you're allowed reasonable unpaid breaks to express breast milk until your child reaches age 1 year. Employers also have to provide a place, other than a bathroom, shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, for you to do this. Some states provide more protections for nursing moms, and also cover smaller employers. Twenty-four states have laws protecting nursing mothers at work.
6. Payment for breaks
If you take a break of 20 minutes or less, the employer has to pay you for it. If your break is more than 20 minutes, the employer can deduct for the time taken as a break. If you have to work during your break, or if your employer permits you to work during your break, they have to pay you for the time you worked (and maybe for the whole break). Punch in and out accurately if you have a time clock. Otherwise, keep accurate records of all your time. If you work at your desk or if your employer calls you back to work, punch back in.
7. Child and teen labor
One Federal law, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) restricts the number of hours that people under age 16 can work. Some states have additional restrictions on child labor, and some have restrictions on non-adult employees over age 16.
8. Bathroom breaks
I wasn't kidding. There really is no federal law requiring bathroom breaks. OSHA is the most likely federal agency to care if your employer won't give you a bathroom break. That's because denying reasonable bathroom breaks is probably a health hazard.
9. Union contracts
Your union contract might have some break requirements, so read it carefully. If the employer isn't giving breaks that you bargained for, contact your union rep.
10. Insubordination vs. retaliation
Don't demand breaks that you're not legally entitled to. If you are legally entitled to a break, then you probably can't be fired for objecting to having your break denied. However, if you get it wrong and insist on a break you're entitled to, your company can fire you for insubordination.
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