young man works on phone while eating lunch

Have you ever found yourself at work, considering whether to skip or shorten your meal break to complete a task? It’s a common dilemma faced by many employees. Navigating the rules around meal breaks and understanding how they impact your pay can be confusing. This scenario raises the question: If you voluntarily cut your meal break short, are you entitled to be paid for that time? 

Understanding Meal Break Laws

Meal break laws are a key aspect of labor regulations, designed to ensure employees have adequate rest during their workday. The Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require employers to offer meal breaks. However, when employers offer short breaks of 5 to 20 minutes, these are deemed to be compensable work hours that are considered in the calculation of whether overtime is warranted. On the other hand, meal periods, usually lasting at least 30 minutes, are not considered work time and do not need to be paid.

State laws also address the issue of meal breaks. These laws vary by state, but generally, in states that do require breaks, employers are required to provide a meal break, typically 30 minutes to an hour, for shifts exceeding a certain number of hours. For instance, in some states, a 30-minute break is mandatory for shifts over 5 hours. However, the specifics can differ – some states mandate paid breaks, while others do not. Additionally, these laws may have different stipulations for various industries or types of work.

Voluntarily Cutting Short Meal Breaks

When you choose to voluntarily cut your meal break short, it’s essential to understand how this decision affects your rights and pay. Employees often shorten breaks to meet deadlines or demonstrate commitment, but this can lead to unintended consequences. Legally, if you’re not fully relieved of duties during your break, it may still be considered working time, which should be compensated. However, this is contingent on your employer’s policy and state laws. Some employers might permit shortened breaks with pay, while others adhere strictly to scheduled break times. It’s important to communicate with your employer about their policies on shortened breaks to ensure compliance with labor laws and to understand how your pay could be affected.

Legal Perspectives and Precedents

In the realm of employment law, several notable cases have set precedents regarding meal breaks. For instance, courts have often emphasized that an employer must genuinely relieve an employee of all duties during their meal break for it to be unpaid. If the employee is required to perform any task, however minor, this break may be considered work time and thus compensable. These rulings highlight the fine line between voluntary actions and implicit expectations set by employers. They serve as a reminder that even well-intentioned decisions, like shortening a meal break, can have legal implications. Clear communication and an understanding of workplace policies are necessary to safeguard employee rights.

What You Should Know as an Employee

As an employee, it’s vital to be informed about your rights regarding meal breaks. Before deciding to shorten your break, review your state’s labor laws and your employer’s specific policies. If shortening your meal break becomes a regular practice, it could inadvertently set a precedent, potentially leading to expectations of always doing so. Consistently working through or shortening breaks without proper compensation could lead to violations of labor laws. It’s advisable to keep a record of your work hours and break times, providing clear documentation in case of any disputes. 

The Lore Law Firm Can Help With Your Questions About Meal Breaks

At the Lore Law Firm, we’re dedicated to championing employee rights. If you’re facing uncertainties about meal breaks or compensation, our experienced team is here to provide clarity and support. Reach out through our free and confidential online client intake form. We’re here to listen and guide you, ensuring you receive the fair treatment you deserve in the workplace.

Michael Lore is the founder of The Lore Law Firm. For over 25 years, his law practice and experience extend from representing individuals in all aspects of labor & employment law, with a concentration in class and collective actions seeking to recover unpaid back overtime wages, to matters involving executive severance negotiations, non-compete provisions and serious personal injury (work and non-work related). He has handled matters both in the state and federal courts nationwide as well as via related administrative agencies. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Michael by using our chat functionality.