Employers and employees alike often have questions about the legal requirements for breaks and meal periods in the work place.
Under New Hampshire law, an employer must grant a thirty minute meal break to any employee who works more than five consecutive hours unless it is feasible for the employee to eat during the performance of his or her work and the employer permits the employee to do so. RSA 275:30-a. The break may be paid or unpaid depending on the company's policy. Thus, for example, if a receptionist works 7 hours a day, he or she must be given a thirty minute meal break after five consecutive hours of work unless the employer allows the receptionist to eat at the work station. If the receptionist is allowed to eat at the work station and does so, the meal period must be paid if the receptionist is performing some work even if it is just being available to answer the phone.
Federal regulations also state that bona fide meal periods are not work time. Bona fide meal periods do not include coffee breaks or time for snacks. These are rest periods. An employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purpose of eating regular meals. Under the federal regulation, ordinarily 30 minutes or more is long enough for a bona fide meal period. A shorter break may be long enough under special circumstances. 29 C.F.R. § 785.19(a). As in the above example, an employee is not relieved if he is required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating. Thus, an office employee who is required to eat at his desk or a factory worker who is required to be at his machine is working while eating and, therefore, must be paid for the eating time. It is not necessary that an employee be permitted to leave the premises if he or she is otherwise completely freed from duties during the meal period. 29 C.F.R. § 785.19(b).
Sometimes an employee voluntarily chooses to take a shorter meal break so that the employee can get back to work and resume earning wages. Employers should take care to ensure that all unpaid meal breaks last a minimum of 20 minutes if the employer wants the meal break to be unpaid. This is the result of the state and federal labor departments' interpretation of a federal regulation which provides that breaks of between 5 and about 20 minutes are considered rest breaks, not meal breaks, and therefore must be paid. 29 C.F.R. 785.18. The rationale for this rule is that an employee cannot reasonably use the time as his/her own. For example, if an employee who could have taken a 30 minute break eats quickly and clocks back into work after only 15 minutes, according to the state and federal labor departments, the 15 minute break must be paid.
With regard to other breaks during the work day, besides the required half hour meal break after five consecutive hours of work, there is no federal or state requirement that an employer provide breaks or rest periods. If, however, breaks are either required or allowed by the employer and they are 20 minutes or less, the New Hampshire and federal labor departments will view the break as hours worked and thus, the time is compensable.
* The information provided in this article is intended to provide you with general guidelines, and should not be considered legal advice. The author has attempted to provide you with accurate and up-to-date information. However, as with any other workplace matter having potential legal ramifications, companies are encouraged to seek specific legal advice to analyze the applicability of the relevant laws to their company.