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Lunch, Break, and Hour Laws You Should Know

Do you get a lunch break? What about a coffee break? How many hours do you work in a week? Think your employer is violating labor laws? Let’s answer your questions!

Basic introduction

Disclaimer: As of this writing, I am not a licensed attorney. This article is for general education only. If you need legal advice, consult a lawyer licensed in your jurisdiction.

This article focuses on U.S. law. If you are in another country, hopefully it will give you some ideas to consider and a basic education on general labor laws.

Your employer must follow several sets of laws. Federal labor law applies to all employers in the United States. Each state also has its own additional requirements. Finally, the city in which you work might also have rules for your employer to follow.

Because of the many laws in question, this article gives a basic overview. It then provides links for more information about each state.

Hour limitations and overtime

Federal law requires overtime pay if you work more than 40 hours in a week. This means your employer must pay 1.5 times your normal hourly rate for hours over 40.

Many of the key issues for this topic are exactly what time counts as “hours worked.” The focus is basically whether or not you are doing regular work duties. If so, that is working time that must be paid.

Here are two good examples: 1.) A receptionist regularly eats lunch at her desk, but still answers the phone and greets customers. This is working time. 2.) Paid firefighters play cards at the firehouse while waiting for an alarm. This is working time as well.

For specific answers to your questions, check out Department of Labor pages on hours worked or overtime pay.

Summary – Overtime pay (rate * 1.5) for hours over 40.

Lunch requirements

Under federal law, your employer does not have to provide lunch or coffee breaks. Also, your employer does not have to pay you for lunch breaks that you are given.

However, your state might have mandatory meal breaks. The requirements vary, but many employees are guaranteed a 30 minute meal period per shift. To qualify, your shift will generally need to be 6 hours, and maybe even 8 hours long.

These states require meal periods: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, and West Virginia.

To find your state’s requirements, consult the Department of Labor’s chart on meal periods.

Summary – Some states require. Not paid.

Coffee Breaks

Like meal periods, the federal government does not require coffee breaks. However, any short breaks (usually 5-20 minutes) that you are given must be paid.

A few states give you a right to short breaks. In these states, you generally get a 10-minute break for every 4-hour shift. These states include: California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

For your state’s requirements, the Department of Labor has a handy rest period chart.

Summary – Some states require. If given, must be paid.

Minimum wage

The federal minimum wage is currently $5.15. Unless you are a tipped employee, your employer must pay you at least $5.15/hour for every hour you work.

Tipped employees must be paid at least $2.13 per hour. If your hourly rate plus tips doesn’t meet $5.15/hour, your employer must make up the difference.

Note: As of July 24, 2007, the federal minimum wage will be $5.85 per hour.

Many states add extra requirements to the federal minimum wage. Your employer might have to pay more than $5.15 per hour. As of this writing, Vermont has the highest minimum wage: $7.53 per hour.

For the minimum wage in your state, consult this state minimum wage law chart by the Department of Labor.

Summary – At least $5.15 per hour.

Labor website for every state

New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia

Other labor law resources

Federal government

United States Department of Labor
Wage and Hour Division


Wage Law
Workplace Prof Blog
Women’s Rights Employment Law Blog
George’s Employment Blawg
Labor & Employment Law, HR Law

Anything else?

If I didn’t cover the topic you’re interested in, let me know. And if I made any mistakes here, please correct me.

Drop a comment down below!

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179 Responses to “Lunch, Break, and Hour Laws You Should Know”

  1. Andrew Flusche
    March 1st, 2009

    @Jason – These issues go beyond the scope of what I’ve written about here. Unfortunately, that means you really need to talk with an Arkansas employment lawyer.

  2. Ashley
    March 7th, 2009

    Hi, I stumbled across this while looking into labor laws. I work part time for a company in Illinois where they make the schedule with “call-ins”. For example, today I have a shift scheduled from 4-10:30 but I have a 2-4 call in, which means I have to call at 1 to see if I work at 2, otherwise I just come in at 4. I was talking to my dad, who is in charge of many area stores in the Texas area, and he said that my employer cannot force me to call an hour ahead and see if I work, that I have to know at least 24 hours in advance my for-sure hours. I can’t find an example of this anywhere – where would I look?

  3. Andrew Flusche
    March 8th, 2009

    @Ashley – I suggest contacting the Illinois labor department. You can find their website and phone number through Google. If that doesn’t help, you could call an employment lawyer who is licensed in Illinois. Good luck!

  4. machele
    March 12th, 2009

    I recently started a new job as a shift manager at a fast food restaurant (major worldwide franchise) working swing shift. I have two issues:

    One–my co-managers on the second and third shifts do not allow employees to take any breaks whatsoever. We are in Mississippi and I know there are no laws entitling breaks, but our corporate training manuals say we must give employees 2-10 minute breaks paid for every 4 hours worked and 1-30 minute unpaid break for those working 6 or more hours. Also, for example, the other night, one employee had worked for 8.5 hours at drive thru with no break at all and asked repeatedly to go to the restroom and was told no by the other manager. She stated she had to go and was going anyway. (Other employees, including 15 and 16 year olds are being treated the same way.) That manager told her she could turn in her uniform if she went to the restroom, so she went to the restroom and quit. I am new, but have given employees breaks on those shifts when asked but am being harrassed and blackballed by co-managers on those shifts for doing so. Is there any protection for these employees on these shifts? This is America, is it really legal to deny these workers even 5 minutes to use the bathroom?

    two–at this store, many workers, inluding myself are required to stay well over our shifts and work. That’s okay, but the general manager is going in and editing our time punches to reflect no overtime. I just recently caught this and ran a report on my own time punches when I realized my checks seemed short and my time punches were wrong (like showing I was clocking out when I was clocking in). Our pay period is from Monday thru Sunday. On the report, it showed that the Sundays I had worked were deleted and the time redistributed to other days in that pay period and in the next pay period to reflect regular hours, rather than overtime. For example, I had worked 48 hours in my first week. 10 of those hours were worked on a Sunday. The edit made it appear that I didn’t work Sunday, but two additional hours were added to a previous day I had worked that week and eight hours were added to the next week. We get paid every two weeks. I’ve worked every Sunday since I started this job, but the report shows that I’ve been off every Sunday. So, I have eight hours I worked, that I’ve yet to be paid for. I’ve been there for a month and a half now. Now, I’m getting some overtime pay on my checks (like 5 ot hours last check) but it’s showing I worked only 76 regular hours for a 2 week period. This is due to the constant redistribution of my time through time punch edits. Not to mention, when my time has been reentered, all of the hours I worked are not being reentered, only partial hours. Are they required to keep any records showing my original time punches?

    Any advice?

    Sorry to be so long winded

  5. Andrew Flusche
    March 15th, 2009

    @machele – I strongly suggest contacting a local employment lawyer who is licensed in your state. And you should contact your state’s labor department.

    I am not sure exactly what restroom breaks would be required, but I’m fairly certain employees get reasonable quick breaks to go to the restroom.

    The overtime pay issue sounds like it violates federal overtime laws. Employers are not allowed to redistribute time like you described. Employees should be paid overtime if they work more than 40 hours during a given work week. The work week has to be a consecutive 7-day period that doesn’t change.

    Good luck!

  6. Kelly
    March 29th, 2009

    Hi, i was looking into Texas labor laws and i ran accross this site. I am aware that Texas is a right to work state, and that is the response i get when i ask about meal and break requirements at my job, as i frequently am denied my 10 minute breaks that (the company policy for an 8 hour shift is two 10 minute paid breaks and one unpaid 30 minute lunch) i’m entitled to, as well as getting my lunch 7 hours into my 8 hour shift, which breaks yet another company policy of getting the 30 minute break around 5 or 6 hours into it.

    But, i don’t really understand how the “right to work” reason has anything to do with this. as I undersatnd it, its more to do with unions.. Is there something i’m missing?

    Also, there has been an issue of sending employees home early. i’ve heard things like a schedule is a contract and that you can’t force anyone to go home before they’re scheduled off, and that a schedule is more like guidlelines from my manager. why such a wide array of answers?

    I work at the busiest store in my region, which spans into two states. Breaks are somewhat neccessary for the amount of work we have to do… i would just like to know if i have a leg to stand on should i decide to say something.

    If you know anything about this i would very much appreciate your input!

  7. Andrew Flusche
    April 1st, 2009

    @Kelly – Right to work doesn’t really matter in the context of lunch breaks. All that matters is what the federal and state governments require. I don’t believe Texas requires any breaks. As far as schedules go, the wide array of answers is probably because not everyone knows what they are talking about. Most states do not have requirements about scheduled hours.

  8. Kristin
    April 22nd, 2009

    Hi, I live in PA at a privately owned restaurant. At this restaurant they told us we are not allowed to smoke while on duty or on the grounds. Somedays, i will work a 11 to 15 hour shift. I’m not sure if smoking breaks are required by law, but as a person with an addiction this is a long time. At 6:00 all employees are required to move our cars to another parking lot, at which time many employees use this as a smoke break. Today my general manager caught me doing so, and in retaliation she picked my cigarette butt off the ground outside and brought it inside put it in my beverage in front of half the staff without my knowledge. Is this against the law and can I get her in trouble with the departemnt of labor of health board or even take it further?

  9. Andrew Flusche
    April 25th, 2009

    @Kristin – This situation would depend upon the local laws and ordinances in effect. If you’re concerned about it, you could certainly call the health department or speak with an attorney who is licensed in your area.

  10. Doug in Vermont
    May 2nd, 2009

    Hi Andrew,

    I’m a full-time/40 hr per week employee. My employer makes me take an unpaid lunch break and my hours are from 7:30 am to 4 pm. A part-time employee works from 8 am-2:30 pm, sits across from me, and gets paid while he eats his lunch. He gets paid 32 1/2 hours per week. It’s definitely not fair in my opinon. Is this legal???

    The same employer also does this: The computer we punch in and out on tabulates my hours in 100ths. The employer pays me in 1/4 hours and does not round up. If I work 39 hours and 59 minutes, I get paid for 39 3/4 hours. If I work 40 hours and 14 minutes, I get paid for 40 hours. They never round up to the nearest 1/4 hour. Is this legal??? I’ve questioned them on this and the response from the office staff is that this is the way they have always done it.


  11. Bob Smiley
    May 4th, 2009

    Growing up, I worked 2 jobs that handled hours unusually.

    1) I worked fast food at Wendy’s when I was in high school. State law prohibited students working over 20 hours, so they would schedule you for 10 hours of actual work, and 30 hours of “on call” … basically that meant you couldn’t go do anything, because you had to be on call to come in in case someone called in sick. I ended up racking up about 30 hours a week because of this. I also got fired over it, because I eventually got fed up of having to hang around the house all night “on call” and not getting paid and not getting called in to work. But one night they did call in, and I blew them off. So, they said I could either come in and sign a piece of paper saying I’d take a reprimend and deduction in pay, or I could quit. I decided to do neither, so they fired me. I didn’t bother taking it to court or anything. Later I found out that Wendy’s was getting into hot water with the state for “child labor” explotation … seems other students were getting more than 20 hours a week, too.

    2) In my 20’s, I worked for a shipping/trucking dock, where we loaded/unloaded trailers with forklifts and such. They would only pay us over time if we went over 50 hours a week. They claimed there was some state law dealing with rail lines or something that let them get away with this. Conveniently, they would work everyone up to 50 hours, then send them home if they were about to go over 50 hours. During the summer, the busiest shipping season, they would hire on extra labor to avoid paying folks over-time to handle the increase in shipments. They would also round the hours down to the nearest 15 minutes. This annoyed me and I confronted the dock manager about it, since the person who used to do the time cards looked at mine and said the way the new person was rounding shorted me about an hours worth of pay (a whopping $9 at the time, but it was a the principle of the matter that I was pissed about). The dock manager said that if I didn’t like it I could leave. So, I did. Last I heard, that company went out of business.

  12. george
    May 9th, 2009

    i’m an hourly co-manager at a pizza place in Las Vegas. I’ve worked here five years nad hadn’t had a break. Is there anything i can do to the company I work for, or receive any compensation for it ?

  13. Max
    May 12th, 2009

    Regarding Tina’s comments (Dec 5th 2008) about being told by your manager to clock-out and continue working, what happens if someone is injured on the job while not on the clock. Can they collect workman’s comp? (Pertains to a restaurant chain in Ohio)

    To save money, managers are making employees clock out 30-40 minutes prior to the end of their shift while still working. Employees are afraid to speak up in fear of retribution.