What the law says about employee lunch, breaks

by William J. Hallan, Executive Vice President, Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel

You might be surprised to learn that but for a few exceptions, Michigan employers are not required to provide meal or rest periods to their employees.

Many employers are under the impression they must provide employees with two rest periods and a lunch for a typical eight-hour shift. While some states have strict requirements, Michigan and federal law do not.

However, if an employer does provide meal or rest periods (and many employers do), the question is whether the employer is required to pay the employee for that time.

The Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employees to be paid for “hours worked.” “Hours worked” ordinarily includes all the time during which an employee is required to be on the employer’s premises, on duty, or at a prescribed workplace. As a result, FLSA distinguishes between rest periods and meal breaks.

Employers must pay the employee for rest periods that are less than 20 minutes or for breaks when the employee is not relieved of his or her duties (e.g., still required to answer the phone).

On the other hand, a meal period is generally not considered to be work time, and the employer is not required to pay the employee for that time, as long as: (1) the employee is completely relieved from job duties; and (2) the meal period is 30 minutes or more.

There are a few exceptions to the general rule.

First, federal law requires employers to give breaks (when needed) to breastfeeding mothers (for a reasonable period of time) and a private room (other than a bathroom) to express breast milk.

Employers must provide this reasonable accommodation for up to one year after the child’s birth.

Many states have enacted protections for minors. Michigan is one of those states.

In Michigan, minors (individuals under the age of 18) must be given a 30-minute, uninterrupted, rest period if scheduled to work more than five consecutive hours.

Other Exceptions
Employees who are covered by a collective bargaining agreement may have additional rights and privileges set forth in that agreement.

Other employees may request reasonable accommodations for medical issues or religious observation.

Best Practices
Of course, most employers do offer meal and rest periods with the understanding that well rested and well fed employees are more productive, efficient and less likely to be involved in a workplace injury.

Rest periods also encourage social relationships between employees and build corporate morale.

If you’re drafting your own corporate policy, consider answering the following questions in your policy:
• What is the difference between a meal break and a rest break?
• What is an uninterrupted break?
• When should meal breaks and rest breaks be taken?
• What happens if an employee is interrupted by work during a meal break?
• Where should employees be encouraged to take their meal breaks?
• What if employees wish to take their meal breaks at their desk?

Excluding the situations described above, Michigan employers are not required to provide meal or rest periods to their employees. But if you do, as many employers do, it’s best to understand the law and make it clear up front whether your employees can take meal breaks or rest periods, and whether they will or won’t be paid during them.