How and When Employee Breaks Have to be Considered Paid Time

I get many questions from clients about what the law says in relation to paying employees for lunch breaks and other breaks. Both Minnesota Statutes and federal law address this issue. Each source says something different, so when in doubt, apply the standard which is more protective of the employees.

Federal law does not require coffee breaks or smoking breaks. However, federal law does state that when a company does provide these types of breaks, they must be treated as paid time. Meal breaks are treated differently by federal law. Once again, there is no requirement that meal breaks be provided. Because meal breaks serve a different purpose than coffee or smoking breaks, they do not need to be considered paid work time.

Generally speaking, if a coffee break is less than twenty minutes, it should be paid time. If a break is greater than thirty minutes, it may be treated as a meal break. This does not mean that an employee can take as many short breaks as they want to and have to be paid.  Unauthorized extensions of work breaks, or unauthorized breaks which do not follow company break policies do not need to be counted as payable work time if the employer has expressly communicated to the employee the break time parameters and stated that unauthorized extensions or breaks will be punished.

Differing from federal law, Minnesota law does require that employees are given breaks. For every four consecutive hours of work performed, employees must be given a break and permitted to use the nearest restroom. Once again, shorter breaks of up to twenty minutes must be paid time for the employee. Minnesota law also provides meal breaks for employees who work eight or more consecutive hours. The meal breaks do not have to be considered paid time, if they are at least twenty minutes long and the employee is free from all work tasks during that time.

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