Employee Breaks: How to Make Sure You're Compliant With Your State
The law requires that you follow rules on employee breaks, but there are better reasons for some down time.
In the early days of America’s Industrial Revolution, factory workers would labor from 14 to 16 hours each day with perhaps a one-hour break for lunch. Child labor was ubiquitous, and injuries were so common that many factories didn’t even keep records of them.
As the burgeoning labor movement fought against exploitative employers and ghastly accidents, employee breaks were such a minor issue that they probably didn’t even warrant a discussion.
Today’s labor conditions are exponentially better than they were, and labor unions continue to push for improved working conditions for many employees. Despite these advances, there are still no federal laws that require a lunch or coffee break. As for individual states, employee breaks are still mostly left to the whims of employers. In fact, fewer than half of U.S. states have laws on the books regarding employee breaks, and even in those cases, there’s little consistency and plenty of exemptions.
For employers, this can create some tough territory to navigate. State laws aren’t the easiest thing to read, especially when they vary depending on your industry and have a multitude of exceptions written into them. So how can you be sure your business is following the law? Perhaps more importantly, how does break time affect your business?
Why generous breaks are a good idea for any business.
As a business owner or manager, you have a tight balancing act. Every week is a puzzle of employee hours, productivity, revenue, expenses, reports, customer satisfaction, and the assorted emergencies that inevitably arise, whether that’s a sick colleague, an equipment failure, or a natural disaster. When you’re trying to piece that all together into a collective whole, things like employee breaks can seem like a deficit. On the surface, you are paying someone to NOT work, or if they’re off the clock, you still have to deal with an employee “missing” for 30 minutes or more.
There’s a lot more to it than that, though. Believe it or not, a business can benefit from offering generous breaks. UC Davis Graduate School of Management professor Kimberly Elsbach points out that skipping breaks and “staying inside, in the same location, is really detrimental to creative thinking.” Even if creative thinking isn’t crucial for your employees, other studies suggest that more break time can improve both job satisfaction and personal happiness.
And a study from Baylor University associate professor of management Emily Hunter establishes a connection between taking breaks and “greater efforts by employees to undertake work above-and-beyond their job description.”
One argument, of course, is that an employee makes a wage based on the job they do, not on whether or not they are happy or satisfied. But the fact is, happy employees who are satisfied with their jobs are far more likely to be engaged, honest, and good ambassadors for your business. Would you rather have the competent, but dissatisfied waiter acting as the face of your business or a waiter who loves his job? Happy employees create happy customers. The same holds true for a receptionist, a salesperson, your marketing team, retail shop employees, and pretty much anyone else in any job.
Taking a break is also good for productivity, which is good for any business. Dr. Janet Scarborough Civitelli notes that the return on investment is “reduced when the brain is required to exert continuous pressure during an eight-hour shift.” In other words, working without a break increasingly hampers your ability to get the job done.
What does the law say?
Breaks are good for everyone, but you still want to be sure you’re following the laws. Though there are no federal laws declaring break time an imperative, the U.S. Department of Labor does have a few guidelines that businesses are required to follow.
Short breaks under 20 minutes should be “on the clock.” Employers aren't required to compensate workers for longer breaks of at least 30 minutes, but only if the employee is allowed to take a genuine break from work. The Department of Labor counts a break as “on the clock” if the employee “is required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive,” while on break.
There is one important exception to federal laws regarding employee breaks. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employers to provide breaks for a nursing mother to “express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk.”
State laws run the gamut from non-existent to highly detailed. As an example, Illinois requires employees that work at least 7½ hours get a 20-minute break within the first five hours of their shift. This, however, only applies to a business “located in a county with a population greater than three million.” Illinois also has additional considerations for hotel employees.
Minnesota’s law is easy enough to follow: employees who work eight consecutive hours get a break of “sufficient unpaid time.” Colorado’s law starts out easily, too, requiring a 30-minute break for shifts longer than 5 hours, but the list of exemptions that follows is enough to make your head spin.
Keep in mind that this is just an overview. For specific labor laws, check with your state’s Department of Labor or consult a business attorney. Whatever you decide to do, remember that research is behind you when you opt to give longer and more frequent employee breaks.
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