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December 21, 2015
Employer policies on time and wages are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The Act includes requirements around minimum wage, travel, training, and meal periods. While states may have additional rules in place on top of the FLSA, others (like Georgia) have no other requirements.
Only 1 in 5 American workers takes a lunch break. Most either skip lunch or eat at their desks. Under the FLSA employers are not required to provide a lunch break after any set number of hours. In addition, employers are not required to make lunch breaks any particular length. If a meal period is allowed, it is unpaid under the FLSA.
While a workplace isn’t required to allow lunch breaks, giving employees a reasonable amount of time to stop and eat generally creates a healthier environment and better morale. To create an atmosphere that encourages employees to take a reasonable lunch break away from their work, it’s recommended that employers have a designated space where people can eat away from their desks or stations.
So what does that mean for employees who eat at their desks and work through lunch?
According to federal law, if any work activity is performed, the meal doesn’t count as a lunch break and remains paid time. If employees are taking an official unpaid lunch break, they should leave their desks for a period of at least 30 minutes.
Any employer can set rules and policies around lunch breaks as long as they are consistent with the FLSA. It is a sound business practice to provide a location where employees can sit down to eat their lunch, such as a break room or cafeteria, where no work activities will interfere with their lunch breack. Otherwise, the time an employee spends eating must be paid time. A designated kitchen or cafeteria gives employees the opportunity to take a lunch break if they need one and keeps the building clean. Employers can also decide whether hourly workers have to clock out for their lunch period.
Employers frequently get in trouble with the FLSA for using time clock systems that automatically deduct 30 minutes or an hour for lunch. When this happens, the employees’ wages are reduced even on days when they do not take a lunch break.
If the government is concerned about an FLSA violation, they can conduct an investigation and encourage the employer to overhaul its policies. If repeated infractions occur, fines may be imposed for each violation. Employees concerned about the FLSA being violated in their workplace should contact the Wage and Hour division of the Department of Labor or consult an employment law firm like Parks, Chesin & Walbert.