Can Employers Take Lunch Breaks Out of Overtime Pay?

Can Employers Take Lunch Breaks Out of Overtime Pay
By Joe Sharpe | 09/06/2022 | 15 min read

Federal and state policies on breaks (paid and otherwise) can be a source of confusion for many employers working to ensure labor law compliance within their business. In this article, we’ll explore FLSA and state requirements regarding lunch breaks, including implications for overtime pay and the potential problems your business can avoid through diligent and streamlined time tracking.

Federal Lunch Break Requirements

According to the U.S. Department of labor, employers are not required to provide lunch or coffee breaks. Although employer-authorized “short breaks” lasting 5-20 minutes qualify as compensable work, lunch breaks of 30 minutes or more do not require payment from an employer. For this reason, employers should ensure that employees have clocked out during lunch breaks that last 30 minutes or more, and do not perform any job-related duties for the full duration of the break (including even minor tasks like answering a phone).

It is the responsibility of the employer to clearly articulate company policy regarding the approved duration of paid “short breaks” – typically 5 to 20 minutes. Employers must also express in writing that any extensions beyond the approved break period are unpaid, contravene company policy, and could result in disciplinary action against the employee. Similarly, employers should express their requirements with regard to timekeeping and tracking breaks, allowing individual employees to edit their timesheets for the sake of accuracy in break reporting.

Important Exceptions and Circumstances

In the event that an employee opts to eat lunch while working, the employer is required to pay them. This is also true if an employee is asked to return to work early during a lunch break. Due to likely variations in employee choices regarding lunch breaks, under no circumstances should the employer automatically deduct lunch break hours from employees’ timesheets. The employee should retain responsibility for entering and editing lunch break time in the event that they work through their lunch break on a regular basis, or even periodically.

Overtime Implications and Consequences for Noncompliance

As your company articulates and implements break policies, remember to keep overtime implications in mind. For instance, when an employee elects to work through lunch, this time counts towards their total hours worked for the week; if the employee is eligible for overtime pay and their “working through lunch” time causes them to exceed the 40-hour weekly threshold, they must be paid overtime for this reported time.

Failing to pay employees for time worked, including overtime, can lead to legal disputes that are costly, time-consuming, and could potentially lead to other labor law audits. For a deeper exploration of overtime and exempt status considerations, please read our related article, “What Requirements Must an Employee Meet to Be Exempt from Overtime?

State Laws Regarding Meal Breaks

Although OSHA and the FLSA do not currently mandate employer-provided lunch or coffee breaks, over 20 states and U.S. territories have instituted requirements to provide employees with daily meal periods. The Department of Labor offers an interactive map that outlines the state-by-state laws for meal period lengths and conditions. States not listed on the website abide primarily or exclusively by federal regulations.

How We Facilitate Streamlined Time Tracking, Payroll, and Compliance

If your business is seeking a timekeeping and payroll service that ensures full compliance and minimizes the likelihood of overtime or time-tracking errors, we are here to help. Led by experts in state and federal labor law, we offer the resources, software, and skills to manage your entire payroll process, including yearly filings; time and attendance, application of tax credits, and anything else you need to remain legally compliant. Contact us today to get started on improving and optimizing your human capital management.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided herein does not constitute the provision of legal advice, tax advice, accounting services or professional consulting of any kind. The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal, tax, accounting, or other professional advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional adviser who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant to your particular situation and for your particular state(s) of operation.