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Giving Employees a Break

Kathryn Carlson /
  • Categories: HR

A frequent question we receive at the KPA Client Success Center is “do I have to give employees paid breaks?” The answer depends, as with most questions relating to workforce management.

The Fair Labor Standard Act does not require paid meal or rest breaks. However, when employers do offer short breaks (usually lasting about 5 to 20 minutes), federal law considers the breaks as compensable work hours. This means that those hours would be included in the sum of hours worked during the work week, and also considered when determining overtime. Unauthorized extensions of authorized work breaks need not be counted as hours worked, if the employer has expressly communicated:

  • 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.

Bona fide meal periods (typically lasting at least 30 minutes), serve a different purpose than coffee or snack breaks and, thus, are not work time and are not compensable. The FLSA also provides for certain required unpaid breaks depending on the circumstances. For example, a nursing mother is entitled to a period of time to express breast milk at work if the nursing mother is classified as non-exempt and the employer has over 50 employers.

Even though there are no federal requirements for paid meals or rest breaks, some state laws do require either paid or unpaid time for meals and rest breaks. Remember that the state law takes precedence over the federal law when the state law is most advantageous to the employee. Two excellent websites that allow employers to check the state laws are available at and

There are also special considerations for meal and rest periods when a worker is a minor. Some states require meal and rest breaks for workers younger than 18 or younger than 15 years of age.

The rule of thumb I use is: rest and meal periods should be unpaid, unless:

  • there is a specific state or federal law that specifies otherwise
  • the employee is asked to perform work during the break
  • the break lasts 20 minutes or less

It’s a good idea to have a break period policy as part of your employee handbook or as a separate policy. Remember to have all employees acknowledge the policy.

For more information, KPA clients can email or check out these DOL websites:

Kathryn Carlson has over 25 years of human resource management experience and is a certified HR professional. For the past 13 years she has focused on developing HR software and programs to improve efficiency, reduce risk, and ensure compliance for companies ranging from small businesses to international corporations.

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