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- Federal Law Regarding Lunch Breaks
One may feel numb or tired working continuously for long hours without having any breaks. This will obviously reduce the productivity and efficiency of an employee. Most of the employers may feel happy by seeing their employees working continuously without taking any breaks. Is it allowed for an employee to take time off from his/her job? Certainly yes! A lunch or a meal break is an approved period of time under the federal law. This Federal law, the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act), permit employees to eat or engage in permitted personal activities.
Legal Right of Employees during Work Hours
There is a federal rule that says a break has to be at least 20 minutes long to be a paid one. Under federal rules only, employers do not need to give most employees lunch or other types of breaks at all.
Lunch and meal breaks are largely a function of state law, which means different states have different rules. Some states not only require the employer to provide lunch and other breaks, but also imposes very specific penalties for failure to do so. Understanding your legal obligations as an employer as well as your employees’ legal rights is key to running a successful business.
As an employer, there are two guiding pieces of legislation on employment hours that you should familiarize yourself with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Both provide guidance for employers on the rules and regulations that govern employee rights and labor laws with regard to vacation and sick leave, meal and other breaks, as well as flex time. According to a study, the amount of time people are taking for lunch breaks in the United States is shrinking, thereby making the term “lunch hour” a myth. Some employers request the lunch to be taken at their work station or not offering lunch breaks at all. Many employees are taking shorter lunch breaks in order to compete with other employees for a better position, and to show their productivity.
In some places, such as the state of California, meal breaks are legally mandated. Penalties can be severe for failing to adequately staff one s business premises so that all employees can rotate through their mandatory meal and rest breaks. For example, on April 16, 2007, the Supreme Court of California, in Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc. 40 Cal. 4th 1094 (2007), held that employers must allow their employees to take time off for lunch or meal breaks. In Murphy, a former store manager sued Kenneth Cole, a small upscale retail clothing store, claiming violations of wage and hour law and asserting that he was improperly classified as an exempt employee. After leaving his employment, Murphy filed a complaint with the labor commissioner. The labor commissioner awarded Murphy unpaid overtime, interest and a waiting time penalty. The employer appealed. On appeal, Murphy added a claim for unpaid meal and rest periods, pay stub violations and interest and attorney’s fees. The trial court awarded Murphy unpaid overtime, payments for missed meal and rest periods and pay stub violations, waiting time penalties and pre-judgment interest plus attorney’s fees. The court of appeal affirmed the lower court’s judgment that Murphy was a non-exempt employee and thus entitled to overtime. The court of appeal reversed the judgment to the extent the trial court issued an award for missed meal and rest periods for pay stub violations as such claims were not raised before the labor commissioner. In addition the court of appeal held that the additional payment for meal/rest period violations is a penalty not a wage, and therefore is subject to a one year statute of limitations. The California Supreme Court, however reversed and held that the additional hour pay provided for in California Labor Code §226.7 constitutes a wage premium payment, which is subject to a three year statute of limitations, not a penalty.
The aftermath of this decision is that, employers now face additional liability when they fail to properly pay employees for not only wages, but also for not providing meal and rest periods as required under the wage hour orders. One or two missed meal periods, and/or a missed meal period, provides for each one hour of additional pay.
Although employer’s rights are considered wide with regard to allowing lunch and meal breaks, still they cannot be held liable for actions arising during unpaid lunch or meal breaks on certain circumstances. When employers allow at least 20 or 30 minutes as breaks for their employees they are free from their liabilities in two different ways. Firstly, they won’t be penalized for disallowing unpaid breaks for their employees (which is a standard set in labor laws). Secondly, employers will not be personally liable to pay compensatory benefits for the liabilities incurred by their employees during the course of unpaid lunch breaks. In EMB Contracting Corp., 2008 NYWCLR (LRP) LEXIS 29 (NYWCLR (LRP) 2008), a Workers Compensation Board panel affirmed the workers compensation law judge s decision disallowing the claim of a roofer who was hit by a car while returning from his lunch break. In EMB Contracting Corp., while an employee returning from his lunch break, the claimant was struck by a car and taken to the hospital. The motor vehicle accident occurred approximately two blocks away from the work site. In rejecting the claimant s argument that the accident occurred in the course of his employment, the panel noted that although the employer paid for the half hour lunch break and told the claimant when he should take his break, the employer did not specify where the claimant should eat his lunch. The claimant submitted no evidence of special circumstances that would render the claim compensable, such as a direction on the part of the employer, performance of a duty during the lunch hour, or a lunch period at an odd time caused by something connected with the work.
Therefore, it was held by the court that during the lunch hours in the absence of special circumstances, such as a direction on the part of the employer, performance of some duty during the lunch hour, or a lunch period at an odd time caused by something connected with the work, an employee is not considered to be in the course of his employment when an accident occurs during his lunch hour.
Misuse of lunch breaks by employees will force their employers to terminate their employment. Moreover, in Grusendorf v. City of Oklahoma City, 816 F.2d 5390 (1987), after signing employment agreement to refrain from smoking during first year of employment, a firefighter was terminated for drawing three puffs on unpaid lunch break after “a particularly stressful day” during the first year of his employment. Firefighter brought suit based on violation of right to privacy and liberty. Therefore the United States court of appeals for the federal circuit Court held that, although the court ruled in favor of the employer, the court based its reasoning on the employer s status as a state agency and applied only a rational scrutiny standard to the employer s no-smoking policy. This reasoning may not apply to private employers in part because the 10th Circuit indicated that there is protected liberty interest within the 14th Amendment that protects the right of employees to smoke during non-working hours. Grusendorf, 816 F.2d at 543.
In addition, the Tennessee Supreme Court in Wait v. Travelers Indem. Co., 240 S.W.3d 220 (Tenn. 2007), held that injuries sustained during an employee s lunch break were compensable under the state s workers compensation act.
Employees are not permitted to consume alcohol during their working hours which includes lunch breaks or rest breaks.
Work Break and Meal State Laws
The 22 states listed below have laws that include some sort of provisions for work breaks. Of the 22, only 19 specifically require a rest or meal break for adults, while only 7 specifically require a rest break in addition to a meal break for adults.