Most workers in the U.S. do not have a right to rest breaks and meal breaks! There is no Federal law giving workers rights to breaks.

Whether your state has a law or not, you almost always have to be paid for breaks of less than 20 minutes.

If your boss does give you a meal break, there are federal laws about whether you must be paid. You don’t have to be paid for meal breaks if:

  • the break is at least last 20 minutes, AND
  • you are relieved of all work (you are not told what to do during the break)

Oddly, the Department of Labor says that a meal break can be unpaid, even if you are not allowed to leave your work site. But, if you are doing anything for your boss, you must be paid. You must be completely relieved of your work and responsibility if you are not paid. If your meal breaks are often interrupted that is a strong sign that you should be paid for your breaks.

If your meal breaks are paid, be sure that you are also being paid overtime if that means that your workweek is more than 40 hours. For example, if you work from 8:30 a.m. -5 p.m. with a 30-minute meal break and two days a week you work during your meal break, you worked 41 hours that week and one hour is at time-and-a-half (41.5 hours).

Can your boss interrupt your break? First you have to find out if you have a right to rest breaks -- if you don't, your boss can interrupt it because he's "giving" it to you. If you have a right,  it usually means that breaks should not be interrupted. In most situations, your boss can’t have you take your break in two parts by having you do some work in the middle. If you are called back to work, you usually still have a right to your entire break. Contact your state's enforcement agency to check your situation.
Unpaid meal breaks have to be at least 20 minutes long, even if you don't have a right in your state. If your boss calls you back to work during an unpaid break, you have to be paid or given a real break.

Can you combine your breaks (take them together)? There is no state that gives you the right to combine breaks. For example, an employee who gets two 15 minute rest breaks and an unpaid 30-minute lunch break may be allowed to combine their morning and afternoon breaks with their lunch break for an hour off. Some states do not permit combining breaks because they state when the breaks are supposed to happen (for example when it says things like “within the 2nd and 3rd hour of the shift”). If you want to be able to combine breaks, have a group of workers approach your boss, maybe with a petition. If they refuse to let workers combine their breaks because of problems with a few people, explain how combining breaks helps most of the workers (including morale) and how it works well for the company. Let us know what happens!

Do you have a right to take a smoking break? No state says a boss has to let workers take smoking breaks.

If you are not getting breaks, what can you do? First, find out what your rights are. Even if you do not have a right to meal breaks, make sure that you are being paid for all time that you are working, including when you work during an unpaid meal break. Work with your co-workers to ask your boss to do the right thing and give meal and rest breaks. You can also contact your state representatives to ask why your state doesn’t protecting workers’ rights to have a break. If you do have a right to meal or rest breaks, talk to your co-workers to make sure that your rights are enforced. Often, states permit employers to bypass the break rules in special circumstances or by requesting an exemption from the enforcement agency. If you are not getting the breaks you should, ask the enforcement agency if there is an exemption for your work and how you can appeal the exemption.

The law: The Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) covers pay for breaks of less than 20 minutes and says that employees must be totally relieved of work duties for unpaid time. The Federal regulation

Meal breaks can be unpaid, if employee is relieved of duty: 29CFR 785.19 Code of Federal Regulations
Rest breaks of 20 minutes or less must be paid: 29 CFR 785.18 Code of Federal Regulations

Who enforces the law: US Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division