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How can employers use meal breaks to underpay you?

On Behalf of | Jul 11, 2023 | Wage Theft

As an employee, you probably reach a point in your working day when you look forward to a well-earned break for lunch (or another meal if you work at a different time of day).

The problem is that some employers don’t want to give their employees meal breaks. While most employers don’t tell employees that they can’t eat when it’s lunchtime, they might make it difficult to take an interrupted meal break. In many states, such deprivation of meal breaks is illegal.  

What is a meal period?

A meal period is what many would call a meal break. Federal law makes clear what qualifies as a bona fide meal period and what doesn’t. Normally it is half an hour or more, but there can be exceptions.

“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.”

An employer might not need to allow employees to leave the premises during the meal break, but employees must be free to eat their meals without being required to do anything else. So, telling someone to take their lunch to their desk so they can keep an eye out for when an important email or phone call comes does not count as a bona fide meal break. This is because the employer is still expecting the employee to do something work-related, i.e., monitor their computer and or phone for work-related emails or phone calls. watch for the email.

Does a company-sponsored working lunch count as a bona fide meal break?

Regardless of whether an employer buys pizza and cake for a working lunch around a conference room table to hash out some ideas, it still doesn’t count as a meal break. Unless you are free to do what you want during your meal break, such as calling your spouse, getting some fresh air, removing your uniform, or plugging in your headphones and zoning out, then it’s not considered a legitimate meal period.

Does my employer need to pay me for meal breaks?

Employers don’t have to pay you for meal breaks, provided the breaks meet the legal definition of a bona fide meal break. However, if you have not been fully relieved from all work-related duties during the entire meal break, then you have the right to receive payment of your regular or overtime wages. If your employer doesn’t willingly pay what they should, then you may need to examine your legal options.