Breaks and Lunch Requirements for Employees

What types of employees have to take a lunch break?

Four work colleagues chatting over lunch or break in the office canteen

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Breaks and time for lunch differ from company to company and job to job. Depending on your job role, industry, hours worked, and more, you may receive specific times to take breaks and to eat lunch. For other workers, your company may not tell you explicitly when you can and should take breaks or time for lunch; you may get to choose those times on your own.

Below, we'll dive into how breaks and lunches work for exempt and nonexempt employees.

Key Takeaways

  • Break times usually last between five and 20 minutes per four hours worked. Lunch breaks are usually between 30 and 60 minutes.
  • Employees are usually compensated for breaks, but not always for lunch.
  • The rules around paid lunch time vary per job, company, and type of employee—whether you're exempt or nonexempt.

What Is Considered a Break for a Nonexempt Employee?

Breaks and lunch periods are times, specified by the employer, during which nonexempt employees are not actively working on the job. Nonexempt employees are those who are entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay (as long as they meet certain requirements).

Employees use break time, which generally lasts from five to 20 minutes per four hours worked, to eat, visit the restroom, read, talk with friends, smoke, and handle personal business.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has no specific requirements for employer-supplied breaks and lunch at work. However, if the employer does supply coffee breaks away from the job (generally 20 minutes or less), the employer is required to compensate the employee during these times. They also count toward the accumulation of hours eligible for overtime pay.


States have their own rules around required breaks for employees who work in the private sector. For example, the basic standard in California is a paid 10-minute rest period for every four hours worked, and 30 minutes for five or more hours worked in a day.

Do Exempt Employees Have To Take a Lunch Break?

Exempt employees take their lunch hour when they find a convenient time, for the most part, and the length of the lunch or any breaks during the day are generally up to the employee.

An employer may not dock the pay of an exempt employee who takes a long lunch. Exempt employees receive the same paycheck every pay period, regardless of how many hours they work. So, if you are an exempt employee and you spend two hours at lunch on a Tuesday, your paycheck remains the same.

Even if an employee refuses to take breaks as required by state law, they still need to get paid and HR is held liable. The responsibility to follow the state law lies directly on the shoulders of the employer.

Can You Schedule the Lunch Break of an Exempt Employee?

Exempt employees can be required to take lunch at a certain time. While most exempt employees should have general control over how they schedule their day, a manager can require that they take a lunch break at a certain time. Evaluate whether this is something that is absolutely necessary, however, and, if it's not, the best approach may be to allow exempt employees to control their own schedule.

One example of when it may be necessary to have a scheduled lunch break as an exempt employee is if you or your employee is a store manager. A store manager needs to be on duty during specific times. A schedule of lunches may help prevent all store managers from being on break at the same time.

Common Answers To Questions About Meals and Breaks

Can a Nonexempt Employee Work Through Lunch?

Yes, an employer has to pay a nonexempt employee who works through lunch without permission. Even if an employee was explicitly told to take a break, and even if the employee clocked out, if they continued to work during their break, the employee must be paid. Employers can discipline the employee, including by firing them, but the employee must be paid for all time worked.

Are Work-Related Questions During Lunch Allowed?

Can an employer ask a nonexempt employee a work-related question while they are at lunch?  Yes, within limitations. As long as this is considered “de minimis” you can do so, AKA, so small that it's not really that impactful on the employee. For instance, it's OK to ask "Where's the file on the Smith project?” but it's not OK to say, “Can you get me the file on the Smith project, and add up our spend to date?” The latter question should wait until the employee's break is over.

Can Employees Skip Lunch To Go Home Early?

This depends on your state law and the business needs. If your state requires a lunch break, employees have to take the break. If your state doesn't require specific breaks, it's up to your business needs to determine if this is allowable.

It may or may not make sense to allow someone to skip lunch and go home early, but that's a management decision. Keep in mind: Employees who haven't had time to eat may not perform at as high of a level as needed.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How long are lunch breaks at work?

Lunch breaks are typically 30 to 60 minutes long. You should ask your manager or check your contract to see how long your lunch break is for employees at your company.

How many bathroom breaks do you get at work?

It's likely that there is no minimum or maximum number of bathroom breaks at work. However, depending on your job, such as if you work at a clothing store or a restaurant, it may not be as easy to step away to use the restroom, so you may need to wait until your lunch or break time.

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  1. U.S. Department of Labor. "Breaks and Meal Periods."

  2. U.S. Department of Labor. "Minimum Paid Rest Period Requirements Under State Law for Adult Employees in Private Sector."

  3. U.S Department of Labor. "Minimum Length of Meal Period Required Under State Law for Adult Employees in Private Sector."

  4. University of Washington, Human Resources. "Meal Periods and Rest Periods."

  5. Intuit Quickbooks. "Federal Lunch and Work Break Laws."

  6. Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute. "De Minimis."

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