employee break laws

Employee Break Laws: What They Are and How to Comply

Employee break laws are important. Having your employees take time off during the workday to eat lunch, rest from their work, or take a step back may seem like an inconvenience as a business owner. After all, time off work is lost productivity.

However, in many states, short rest breaks and lunch breaks are mandated by law. Which means you must allow your workers to take them if your business meets the requirements.

Despite there being no strict federal laws on breaks and lunches, few business owners know exactly what employee break laws do exist on a state level and how to comply with them.

For businesses that do offer work breaks above and beyond those required by law, it can often be confusing whether these breaks are to be paid or unpaid.

What’s more, with so many variations in the times your employees work, the roles they do, and where they work, it can become confusing to know exactly how much break time your employees are legally entitled to each day.

Differences in age, role, location, hours your employee works per week, and hours your employee works per day all play a factor in whether your employee is legally required to have a break during the workday.

If you’re a business owner or manager with employees across different states or provinces in the United States or Canada, or are managing teams with staff in countries like the U.K., understanding exactly what each area’s break laws are and how to comply can be a seemingly endless task.

Not complying with rest breaks, lunch break laws by state, or international employment laws can lead to serious problems for your business.

Penalties for not complying can be large. In many cases, your company may be investigated and fined if you are found to repeatedly violate labor laws.

Employee breaks and wellness

If you’re a large or rapidly growing company, you may be starting to place focus on employee wellbeing to help you gain a competitive edge.

Many companies are now starting to understand that although allowing employees to take breaks throughout the day reduces the time they spend working, it may actually lead to increased productivity, efficiency, and happiness.

Recently published studies show that employees who are allowed to take regular breaks at work are more focused, more productive, and have improved mental health compared to those who are not allowed work breaks.

To help you understand the federal labor laws on lunch breaks, we’ve combed through the legislation and requirements to put together this guide.

We’ve also taken a look at the latest research and advice on offering employee break times in the workplace to help you understand whether introducing regular lunch or break times for your employees can lead to increased output.

Why you should consider giving your employees work breaks

Before we dive into the regulations around employee work breaks and lunch breaks, it’s a good idea to pause and think about why offering breaks is a good idea.

While many of us are still of the mindset that taking regular breaks means taking a break from being productive, efficient, and valuable, recent research shows the opposite is true.

In fact, survey and productivity data show that employees who regularly take work breaks are more productive, more efficient, and better workers than those who work for stretches without a break.

The science around why we need to take breaks at work has evolved over time.

Previously it was thought that sticking through your work schedule and staying on-task was the best way to be the most productive.

Let’s have a look at the reasons why you should give your employees work break

#1 Rest breaks are a great reset

However, employers are now learning that their staff are better workers when they’re able to step away from work for short periods of time.

Science shows that taking breaks from work prevents decision fatigue leading to better decision-making and a reduction in errors caused through tiredness and overexposure to tasks.

Having downtime also allows the brain to form memories and learn things faster, meaning your employees will be faster to take on new information and progress in their roles

#2 Breaks encourage team engagement

Research also shows that 81% of employees who take daily breaks in the form of eating lunch and talking to a colleague have a strong desire to take an active role in their company.

What’s more, allowing your employees to have regular breaks from work has been shown to reduce employee turnover, increase work attendance, and decrease the amount of employees who are present but unproductive.

#3 Work breaks benefit mental health

In the U.K., the Mental Health Foundation has found that poor mental health results in 70 million missed workdays. One in five employees in the U.K. takes a day off due to stress, and 25% of employees have considered resigning from a job due to stress.

Allowing your employees to take work breaks throughout the day, even if these breaks are short, has been shown to improve employee mental health. This improved mental health has huge benefits for your team, and for business. A recent World Health Organization study found that for every $1 invested in improving the mental health of employees results in a return of $4 in improved health and productivity.

As the benefits of employee mental health become clearer, it is more important than ever to offer your employees regular work and lunch breaks. This is also true when you consider the changing shape of the workplace.

In a study conducted by Tork showing the changing attitudes around the lunch break, 62% of the future workforce said they would opt for a longer or more regular lunch break if possible. This compares to only 46% of the current workforce.

What’s more, in the same study, 16% of the future workforce said they would be willing to take a 10% pay cut if it meant having a lunch break every day.

With these statistics in mind, it’s clear that there are tangible benefits from allowing your employees to take regular breaks at work and for you to implement a mandatory lunch break. However, the rules and regulations around implementing short breaks and lunch breaks are complex and vary by state.

Make sure any work breaks you implement are compliant with regulation with our breakdown below.

What are the U.S. federal labor laws for lunch breaks?

In the U.S., the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets the standards for wages and overtime pay for most private and public employment within the United States. This act requires employers to pay employees at least the federal minimum wage and overtime pay of one-and-one-half-times their regular hourly rate of pay for hours that exceed their contracted work hours.

This act restricts the amount of time children under the age of 18 can spend at work and it prevents them from working in dangerous roles and during school times.

While this federal law mandates the minimum rate you can pay your employees and guarantees an overtime rate at a minimum of 1.5x their standard hourly rate, it does not include requirements for lunch or coffee breaks.

While the act does not stipulate that employers must provide their employees with set break times throughout the day, it does require that break times of between 5 and 20 minutes are paid when offered by employers. This means that any break time offered by your business that is between five and 20 minutes long is paid by your company and treated as compensable work time. These times are typically used for coffee or snack breaks but they aren’t always.

So, if your company offers short breaks of between five and 20 minutes, while these aren’t mandated by federal break laws, your employees must be paid for this time.

However, if your company offers bona fide meal periods — like a lunch break — that lasts at least 30 minutes, these are defined as serving a different purpose to snack or coffee breaks and they are not compensable.

Make note: your employees must be relieved of all their work duties during this period of time for it to count as a non-compensable period of time.

Overview of the federal labor laws for lunch breaks: Under the FLSA, there are no federal labor laws on breaks or lunches. If your company gives your employees short breaks of five to 20 minutes (such as for coffee or snacks), this time must be counted as the time your employee is working and must be paid. If your company mandates a lunch break of more than 30 minutes, this time is treated as a meal period and is different from a short break and is not required to be paid, so long as your employee is free of all their work duties for this period.

Something to watch out for

When asked by Right Management in a study, 39% of employees admitted to eating lunch at their desks regularly and 28% of employees admitted to rarely taking any breaks.

If this happens with your employees, this can be problematic.

If your system automatically logs lunch and meal break times, that are not paid, on behalf of your employees even though they may still be technically working, this can be seen as a violation of FLSA.

What’s more, you may still be in violation of FLSA if you log lunch breaks for your employees while they are eating lunch if they eat lunch and continue to undertake work-related tasks. If this situation happens, your employee must be paid for this meal break because it is not a dedicated time away from work.

What happens when you fail to track lunch break

If your company fails to track lunch breaks properly and records lunch breaks for your employees when they either don’t take any or are working as well as having lunch, you are in violation of FLSA.

The result of this can be a wage and hour lawsuit or the receipt of penalties from the Department of Labor.

Either of these is a costly experience that you should implement steps to avoid.

The most important step is to accurately track your employees’ lunch breaks and mandate that they step away from all work-related duties during this lunch period. If, for any reason, your employees continue to execute any work-related tasks during their lunch break you must account for this and include this in their paycheck.

We’ll discuss effective ways to track employee working times later in this guide.

Breakdown of U.S. state labor laws for lunch breaks

Below is a breakdown of any additional state labor laws for workers in the U.S

What are the federal employee break laws in Canada?

Like the U.S., Canada has a set of regulations that dictate how employees can work and stipulate what employers must provide for employees. Also like the U.S., there is no legislation in Canada that mandates workers to be allowed coffee breaks. However, in Canada, many employers choose to provide workers with those breaks.

All provinces in Canada have a minimum amount of rest time required between days of working and many provinces mandate rest periods after a certain number of hours each day. However, not all provinces have the same employee break laws and you must check the relevant rules and regulations for the provinces your employees work in.

We’ll provide a detailed breakdown of the relevant rules for each province later in this guide.

Breakdown of Canadian province labor laws for employee breaks and rest periods

What are the employee break laws in the U.K.?

In 1998 the U.K. implemented the Working Time Regulations that set out the number of hours an employee can work per week and the rest breaks every employee must be given. These include the number of hours between shifts and the minimum number of paid days off an employee can have each year.

The Working Time Regulations in the U.K. apply to a broader category than just employees. The U.K. regulations apply to ‘workers.’ This means that temporary and contract workers who are not employees of a company are also covered by the rules.

In the U.K. all workers are entitled to receive:

  • Paid annual leave: A set number of days off work that are paid by the employer

  • Rest breaks and limits on the overall amount of time they can work

  • A National Minimum Wage

  • No unlawful deductions from their wages

Because in the U.K. employment status is not always clear and because different categories of ‘workers’ are entitled to the same rights as fully-fledged employees, it’s best to stay cautious and treat all workers the same way.

What’s more, if you treat employees like two different classes of workers, even if you’re legally entitled to do so, it will end up in workplace dissatisfaction issues, which will then create as much as a problem as incorrectly categorizing your staff.

The law in the U.K. entitles workers to a minimum of a 20-minute break if their working day is more than six hours.

Like in the U.S., this break time must be:

  • A full, uninterrupted 20-minute break

  • Away from the employee’s workstation

  • During their working hours

  • Not be taken at the start or the end of the working day

  • Not overlap with their daily rest periods

When it comes to whether the short break time should be paid, there is no legal requirement to do so. However, the recommendation is that you should compensate employees for this mandatory break time.

Workers in the U.K. are also entitled to a minimum of 11 hours of rest per day. This means the minimum time between the end of one shift and the start of the next is 11 hours. Workers are also entitled to a minimum of 24 hours of uninterrupted rest every seven working days.

There is some flexibility with these rest periods and the 24 hours every seven days may also be replaced with two 24-hour periods or one 48-hour period every two working weeks.

This flexibility allows you to employ team members and workers during crucial and busy times, and have them work longer days than you usually would. Just as long as they receive a minimum of one uninterrupted 48-hour period of time off every two weeks.

All full-time employees in the U.K. are also entitled to 5.6 weeks of annual leave. This is 5.6 weeks of paid holiday time that must be allocated to an employee. If you employ part-time workers, they must receive paid annual leave at a pro-rata amount.

U.K. rest break rules for those under 18

If your company employs under-18s, which is legally allowed to do so long as you employ children aged over 16, there are additional rules you have to be aware of.

Under-18s are not allowed to work more than eight hours per day and more than 40 hours per week.

Under-18s are also required to receive:

  • A short, 30-minute break if they work over four hours and 30 minutes in a day

  • 12 hours of rest between working times

  • Two rest days per week

Breakdown of U.K. labor laws for employee breaks and rest periods

Below is a breakdown of any additional state labor laws for workers in the U.K.

Scotland employee break laws

Self-employed business people are not mandated to abide by the Working Time Regulations 1998 but all part-time, full-time, freelance, and agency workers are required to abide by the regulations.

Overtime may be voluntary or compulsory and is defined as any working time above an employee’s normal working hours. In Scotland, there is no legal obligation to pay employees for any overtime undertaken. However, an employee’s rate of pay for the total amount of time they work - including overtime - must not fall below the National Minimum Wage.

Employers must take reasonable steps so that employees do not work more than 48 hours per week over a period of 17 weeks unless the employee has expressed written consent to be removed from limits on their working times.

Employers must keep records of the times their employees work.

Ireland employee break laws

Employees are entitled to a short 15-minute break when working for 4.5 consecutive hours. Employees working six consecutive hours are entitled to a 30-minute break and this break period may include the first 15 minutes. Any break given is not required to be paid and is not considered working time.

England employee break laws

Employees working more than six consecutive hours per day are entitled to an uninterrupted break of 20 minutes. This break is not required to be paid unless stated in an employment contract.

Wales employee break laws

Wales has no additional employee break laws above those called for in the Working Time Regulations 1998.

Why tracking your employees’ work hours is important

With employee break laws varying so greatly across different locations, it’s vital that you track the hours your employees work and make sure you and your company remain compliant with various regulations and provisions. It is also important to stay compliant with time clock rules.

Tracking your employee’s work hours allows you to have an in-depth understanding of when they are working, and what they are working on. This means you have records of their breaks and downtime, and can track when employees qualify for overtime and are entitled to receive overtime benefits.

Tracking employee's work hours is required in many locations and must be done to comply with regulations.

Failure to track employee work hours may result in investigations and fines through your failure to provide accurate accounts of working hours and evidence of employees receiving the mandated break times.

Keeping an accurate record of when employees are working and when they are on breaks will also help you gain an understanding of if employees are truly being relieved of their work responsibilities during their breaks. This can help prevent any wage theft issues or challenges to remuneration amounts.

Tracking your employees’ work hours also has benefits that extend beyond remaining compliant with regulations.

Being able to understand exactly what hours your employees work, when they take their mandated breaks, and when and how often they work overtime means that you are able to gain a deep insight into availability and work patterns.

This will allow you to make changes to processes, employee hours, staffing structures, or routines to increase efficiency and reduce waste.

It will also allow you to accurately monitor and evaluate individual employee performance. Being able to monitor employee output against their hours can help you spot problems of inefficiency and waste and help you evolve company processes or ways of working to improve productivity.

Employees’ performance may also be tracked over time and then compared to their own historic performance or to that of the team.

Read more about the benefits of time tracking in our guide.

How to track employee work hours

Software tools allow you to track employee work hours and break times efficiently, effectively, and comprehensively. By tracking time throughout the day, you can monitor when employees are working, how productive they are, and if break times are being taken as needed.

Time tracking apps allow you to monitor the exact breaks being taken by employees, whether these breaks are completely free from work and unpaid, or whether your employees are failing to take their required time away from work.

Time tracking software like Hubstaff works to track employee work hours right from a computer or mobile device. Hubstaff provides an exact breakdown of an employee’s work schedule and an overview of when, how long, and how efficiently they are working.

For employees who do not work from a computer, a software like Hubstaff allows you to create geofenced locations that automatically clock employees in and out and track the amount of time spent on a client or work site. For sales or field service teams, GPS tracking monitors their route and helps provide an overview of time spent on the road, at certain stops, and on breaks.

Implementing a time tracking tool makes it easier to see exactly when employees take their break times, and that their break times are compliant with regulations. With daily timesheets emailed to you, you can even spot overtime before it happens and make adjustments to schedules if needed.

What’s more, a good tool offers the ability to run and manage payroll from within the software. By using the time tracking feature to gather information about work patterns and productivity, you can then issue payments based on set rates and hours worked.

Start complying with employee break laws

With so many different employee break laws across various states, provinces, and regions, it’s vital to make sure you stay compliant.

To do so, familiarize yourself with the relevant rules and regulations for the places your employees work. Build out a framework or process for when employees will take their breaks, if these breaks will be paid, and if employees work overtime.

If you are required to keep records of employee working hours, establish a Dropbox, Google Drive, or Box filing system to keep records stored safely. Compliment these records with physical copies.

With a combination of time tracking software, an in-depth knowledge of the employee break laws and rest requirements for your various areas of work, and an improved understanding of how employee break laws work, your company will be set up for success.

Take the first step now by starting a trial with Hubstaff and monitoring your employee breaks, work activity and patterns to discover whether you are compliant with regulations.

Disclaimer: This is not legal advice. Consult your own legal counsel should you have questions about the summaries of current legislation described here.

Want to learn more about paying employees? Read our travel time pay guide.

Important Notice: The information in this article is general in nature and you should consider whether the information is appropriate to your needs. Legal and other matters referred to in this article are of a general nature only and are based on Hubstaff’s interpretation of laws existing at the time and should not be relied on in place of professional advice. Hubstaff is not responsible for the content of any site owned by a third party that may be linked to this article and no warranty is made by us concerning the suitability, accuracy or timeliness of the content of any site that may be linked to this article. Hubstaff disclaims all liability (except for any liability which by law cannot be excluded) for any error, inaccuracy, or omission from the information contained in this article and any loss or damage suffered by any person directly or indirectly through relying on this information.

Employee monitoring, made easy

Track time, set pay rates, quickly remind your team when they’re idle, and more with Hubstaff.

Get 14 days completely free