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A simple question: Do you have to give employee meal breaks?
A lawyerly answer: It depends.
Unfortunately, employee meal breaks is one of the most complicated areas of employment law and non-compliant employers regularly face multi-million dollar class action lawsuits. So why the confusion?
Under federal law, there is no such thing as employee meal breaks. Employers don't have to give you time off to eat regardless of how many hours you work. Fortunately for hungry employees, 20 states and many corporate policies do require that employees have time off to eat.
Often, states that require employee meal breaks will provide that if an employee works a certain number of hours in a day, that employee must have unpaid time off to eat. For example, in California, the general rule is that if an employee works five hours in the day, the employee should have 30 minutes time away from work to eat.
Besides California, other states that have some type of meal break law are Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia.
Keep in mind that all of these state rules are very different. For example, Illinois law only pertains to some hotel employees, while Massachusetts law applies to most everyone.
The complications about meal break laws stem from the fact that they are governed by individual state laws. There are very specific requirements for meal breaks, and additional complications for employees who voluntarily choose to forego breaks or who eat at their desk.
If you have questions about giving employee meal breaks, you should definitely talk to an employment attorney.