September 18, 2019

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“I Almost Got Fired for Not Taking My Lunch Break!”

Mandatory Lunch Break

Jack was a rising star in his field…one of those people who was first to show up and last to leave. His can-do spirit inspired his coworkers, and it wasn’t unusual to find Jack enjoying a “working lunch” at his desk while others took a thirty-minute lunch break.

What Jack didn’t know was how his break-time behavior could hurt his company.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is a group of laws regulating minimum wage, maximum work hours, and compensation for overtime hours. What it doesn’t regulate is whether your employer must provide you with breaks. If your employer chooses to offer breaks, federal law mandates pay for that time as part of your overall worktime/pay for that pay period, and any overtime due. In other words, if your employer allows for one or more breaks during your typical work day, break time cannot be deducted from your pay.

And what about lunch breaks? The FLSA has set the standard for paid lunch breaks and many states have followed suit: California, 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 all impose statutes requiring meal breaks. Yes…requiring employees to take a lunch break. Since each state can decide the length of the lunch break, it varies from state to state. For example, California allows a 30-minute paid lunch break for each 5-hour period worked; West Virginia allows a 20-minute lunch break for each 6-hour period worked.

How was Jack hurting his company? His office required lunch breaks. By opting for a working lunch, he unwittingly put his employer in a position that violated the law. Skipping lunch forced Jack’s employer to either compensate for the unused break time or let Jack go home early to avoid paying unapproved overtime. The latter would set an unwanted precedent for other employees.

For companies faced with these issues, everyone’s best interests can be served by setting meal standards, ensuring employee awareness (via a handbook or similar method), enforcing the meal period standard and establishing a penalty system for nonconforming employees like Jack, such as docking pay or receiving a write-up.  Employees who continue to violate the standard could be terminated.

Because Jack was a valued employee, his employer was willing to talk with Jack and, rather than fire him immediately, gave him a chance to bring his behavior into compliance.  

If you face similarly thorny issues in your workplace, consult with an attorney to learn about your rights and ways to legally enforce workplace standards.

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