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Are Employees Legally Entitled to Meal Breaks?

Most of us can imagine it in our heads – construction workers sitting on the side of the road digging into their lunch pails, or people in business suits heading out to grab a bite of something nearby, enjoying the sun before returning to finish the workday.

It’s a scene that plays out in offices and worksites throughout the country every day. And we’ve all been there. After a long morning of working up an appetite, everyone is ready for a few minutes to ourselves, enjoying our lunch and gathering our thoughts for the afternoon.

But are you legally entitled to this time?

In some situations, yes, your employer must provide you with break time to eat, use the bathroom, and engage in personal activities. However, according to the US Department of Labor, there are no federal laws requiring lunch or coffee breaks.

When employees are given a break shorter than 20 minutes, the employee must stay on the clock. These are considered “short breaks” and by federal law, employees must be paid for this time. These breaks are also encouraged (but not mandated) because they promote efficient work.

Of course, 20 minutes isn’t always enough to get everything done you might want to get done on a break. This is why some employers provide 30 or 60 minutes breaks, often used by employees to eat their lunch or run personal errands around the middle of the workday. And though these breaks are commonplace in many work fields, there are no laws requiring employees be given this extended break time or paid for the time.

New York Laws Regarding Breaks

Though there are no federal laws mandating work breaks, there are state laws that vary from state to state. In New York, employees are entitled to break time based on the length and timing of their shift.

In most cases, workers who work a full-time shift must receive a meal break during their shift. Someone working six hours or more during mid-day (11 am to 2 pm) is legally entitled to a break of 30 minutes without pay. If your workday begins before 11 am and ends after 7 pm, you are entitled to that mid-day break, as well as an additional 20 minutes between 5 and 7 pm.

For those working longer than six hours between 1 pm and 6 am (often considered second or third sift), you are entitled to a 45 minute unpaid break around the middle of your shift. Those working in factories are entitled to a full hour break under New York law.

New York law does not require anyone working shorter than a six hour shift to be given a meal break. However, if short breaks are given (20 minutes or less) New York law, like federal law, requires employees be paid for this time. Federal and New York law also requires employees be given “reasonable access” to bathrooms.

For a more detailed look at how restroom breaks can cause problems in the workplace, check out this article from ABC Newsthis article from ABC News.

It’s also important to note that specific work contracts, many of which are negotiated by a workers’ union, do entitle workers to breaks. If you believe your supervisors is denying you a break to which you are entitled under an employment contract, you should contact your union representative.

Rules concerning breaks can be confusing, especially if your employer is trying to take advantage of you. In some cases, mistakes made by employers are unintentional and simply reminding your supervisor or human resources department that you’re entitled to be paid for short breaks is enough to remedy the problem. But sometimes employers are intentionally trying to get away with something and more needs to be done to correct the issue.

If you have questions about break time and how the laws governing breaks affect your workplace, we can help. Contact the New York Employment Lawyers at Borrelli & Associates, P.L.L.C. for more information.




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