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An Employer’s Short Guide to Employee Break Time Obligations

May 31, 2017

A recent study showed that employees who regularly take short breaks are far more productive than those who work continuously for hours on end.  The study, conducted by the Draugiem Group, found that the ideal work-to-break ratio was roughly an hour of uninterrupted work, followed by a break lasting 15 to 20 minutes.  Regardless of how employers feel about the results of this study, they should understand their legal obligations with regard to employees’ meal periods and rest breaks.

Many employers provide employees with rest breaks or meal periods, whether paid or unpaid.  What some employers may not know, however, is that in South Carolina and North Carolina—with two specific exceptions—this common practice is not mandated by either federal or state law.[1] Employers should be aware of the following:


Rest Breaks

In South Carolina and North Carolina, employers are not required by law to provide employees rest breaks.  However, if an employer chooses to offer short breaks (lasting five to 20 minutes), the employer must count the time as compensable work hours and pay the employee for the break time.  (29 C.F.R. 785.18.)  Because such break time is considered compensable work hours, the time is to be included in the sum of hours worked during the work week and considered in determining if overtime was worked.  Unauthorized extensions of authorized rest breaks need not be counted as hours worked when the employer has expressly and unambiguously communicated to the employee that:  (1) the authorized break may only last for a specific length of time; (2) any extension of the break is contrary to the employer’s rules; and (3) any extension of the break will be punished.

Meal Periods

Bona fide meal or lunch periods (usually 30 minutes or more) do not need to be paid, so long as the employee is free to do as they wish during the meal or lunch period.  (29 C.F.R. § 785.19.)  In other words, the employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purposes of eating regular meals in order for a break to be considered a bona fide meal period.  An employee "completely relieved of duty" is one who is completely relieved from any duty, whether active or inactive, while eating.  For example, an employee required to wait for customers to come in or to call is not completely relieved of duty, even if the employee is free to eat or read a magazine while doing so.

Break Time for Nursing Mothers

When it comes to nursing mothers, federal law places certain break time requirements on employers.  Specifically, under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers are required to provide “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk.” (29 U.S.C. § 207(r).)  Employers are also required to provide “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.”  (§ 207(r).)  Neither federal nor South Carolina law requires employers to pay employees for these breaks, but employers can certainly do so.

After the one-year mark, there is no requirement under the FLSA to provide employees time to express milk; employers may use their discretion to craft a policy addressing the issue.

North Carolina Employees 16 Years of Age or Younger

For North Carolina companies that have gross sales or receipts of less than $500,000 a year or private non-profit organizations in North Carolina, employers are required to provide employees under 16 years of age at least a 30-minute break after the employee works five consecutive hours. (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 95-25.5.)  In addition, with respect to these employees, no break of less than 30 minutes shall be deemed to interrupt a continuous period of work.  (See § 95-25.5.)

Of course, no law prohibits employers from providing breaks as they see fit, either.  Although not required under federal law, employers should consider implementing and maintaining a meal and rest period policy, especially if the employer allows its employees to take breaks.   

[1] Rest breaks and meal periods are largely a function of state law.  Some states not only require an employer to provide lunch and rest breaks, but also impose very specific penalties for failure to do so. 

Our Insights are published as a service to clients and friends. They are intended to be informational and do not constitute legal advice regarding any specific situation.