Quirky Question #223, Meal Periods Outside California

by Dorsey & Whitney LLP
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Question:

We have offices in 13 states, a headquarters in Iowa and a manufacturing facility in Alaska.  Several employees have used our “open suggestion box” to request that we allow them to work through lunch so they can go home earlier.  I am aware of California’s unique laws which require that non-exempt employees be offered meal periods of at least 30 minutes during which they are relieved of all duty.  I am assuming this is applicable to California only.  Are short lunch periods a problem in any other states?

Dorsey’s Answer:

First, federal law (the Fair Labor Standards Act), which is the governing law in many states including Iowa and Alaska, does not require meal or rest periods.  If you do provide a bona-fide meal period, you do not have to pay for the meal period.  However, if you provide less than 30 minutes for the meal break for your non-exempt employees, this time may be considered work time instead of a bona fide meal period.  The federal regulations (29 CFR 785.19) provide that:

“Bona fide meal periods are not work time. Bona fide meal periods do not include coffee breaks or time for snacks. These are rest periods. The employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purposes of eating regular meals. Ordinarily, 30 minutes or more is long enough for a bona fide meal period. A shorter period may be long enough under special conditions. The employee is not relieved if he is required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating. For example, an office employee who is required to eat at his desk or a factory worker who is required to be at his machine is working while eating….. It is not necessary that an employee be permitted to leave the premises if he is otherwise completely freed from duties during the meal period.”

Thus, under federal law, you can allow shorter meal periods but you pay them as time worked.  You do not need to compensate an employee for “bona fide meal periods of 30 minutes or more.  As long as you are paying the employees during the shortened meal period there are no penalties simply because you failed to provide for a lunch break of less than 30 minutes.  This is a sharp contrast with the California law you are aware of which provides for a one hour penalty to be paid for each day the employer does not provide an employee with a 30 minute off duty meal period.

As noted in the attached charts from the federal Department of Labor, there are other states with their own meal (and rest period) laws.  (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia).  If you are in one of these states, you need to comply with state law in additional to the Fair Labor Standards Act.   The charts can be retrieved at http://www.dol.gov/whd/state/meal.htm.

Note also that many states provide additional protection for minors under the age of 18.  In Alaska, for example, an employer must provide at least a 30 minute break to employees aged 14 to 17 if they work 5 or more consecutive hours.  That break must be timed after the first hour of work and before the beginning of the last hour of work.  For this reason you should monitor the work schedules of your minor employees.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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