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The Workplace Guide To Meals & Breaks

The rules and regulations around meals and breaks can be a challenge to navigate for most. We’ll break it down into bite-sized pieces for you so it’s a little easier to understand from both a payroll and HR perspective.


The rules and regulations around meals and breaks can be a challenge to navigate for most. Trying to interpret all the subtleties and exceptions and nuances can be, quite frankly, intimidating. So many questions:

  • Who is entitled to a meal or rest break (or both)?
  • When are meals and breaks to be taken?
  • How long should a break last? Is it the same as for a meal?
  • Are there any exceptions?

We’ll break it down into bite-sized pieces for you so it’s a little easier to understand from both a payroll and human resources perspective.

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Federal Guidelines for Meal Breaks

Many people are surprised to learn that employees are not entitled to lunch or coffee breaks under federal law (as long as certain conditions are met), though many states’ laws do have requirements around meal and rest breaks, including the state of New York’s.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers may automatically deduct meal and/or break time from employees’ hours worked, however, they must ensure that employees receive the full duration of the break-in question. 

Working While Eating

Under the FLSA, if an employer provides meal breaks (and the state of New York says they have to), the employee must be completely relieved of duty. 

Meaning, an employee is not considered to be completely relieved of duty if he or she is required to perform any work whatsoever, whether active or inactive, even if eating at the time. 

(It’s worthwhile to note that some courts have interpreted this legislation more conservatively in favor of a predominant benefit test “to determine, on a case-by-case basis, to whom the benefit of the meal period inures.”)


When determining whether an employee is owed overtime, unworked time--- including meal periods -- does not have to be counted. Conversely, if an employee works during a meal period, that time must be counted towards overtime when applicable.

Interrupted Meals

If employees’ meals are interrupted and they have to perform work during that time, they must be paid for the full duration of the break. It’s a good idea for employers to establish a reasonable process for employees to report missed meal breaks to limit liability exposure for lawsuits. 

In New York, however, there is a One-Employee Shift exception that addresses situations where only one person is on duty (or is the only one in a specific occupation) where it is customary for the employee to eat on the job without being relieved. 

If an employee voluntarily consents to such an arrangement, it is acceptable under this exception. (There are detailed guidelines around this sort of situation of course, but this is the general rule.) 

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New York State Guidelines for Meal Breaks

In the state of New York, all workers are entitled to an additional meal break of at least 20 minutes for workdays that extend from before 11:00 am to after 7:00 pm. The meal break must be provided between 5:00 pm and 7:00 pm. 

Factory Workers

A person “employed in or in connection with a factory” (or whose primary duties involve the maintenance and/or operation of a factory) is considered to be a factory worker according to guidance from the New York State Department of Labor (or NYSDOL). A factory would include places like mills, workshops, or other manufacturing establishments. 

Factory workers are entitled to two meal breaks of at least 60 minutes each for all shifts of more than six hours starting between 1:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. and lasting more than six hours.

According to these same state guidelines for factory workers, the first lunch break must be between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. The second meal break must be at a time midway between the beginning and end of the shift.

An employer can apply to the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor for shorter meal periods. Any permits granted must be in writing and conspicuously posted at the main entrance of the employer’s establishment, and permits may be revoked at any time.  

Non-Factory Workers

Non-factory workers are entitled to a lunch break of at least 30 minutes (between 11:00 am and 2:00 pm) for shifts six hours or longer that extend over that period.

For shifts of more than six hours starting between 1:00 pm and 6:00 am, non-factory workers are entitled to a 45-minute meal break, provided at the midpoint of the employee’s shift. 

‘Brown Bag Lunches’

If you’re eating lunch at work while listening to a speaker or a presentation--- even if it is not related to work (think an employer-sponsored presentation on health and wellness issues) -- the employer is obligated to provide an uninterrupted meal period where they are free to leave their work areas and engage in non-work related pursuits if they so desire. 

If brown bag lunch events are required, they do not count as a meal period and must be counted as time worked. (But remember, if an employee chooses to attend a lunch voluntarily, the employer is considered to have provided the requisite meal period under the law.)

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Breaks and Rest Periods - New York

An overview of what New York State labor law requires employers to provide their employees in terms of meals and breaks.

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Day of Rest - New York

Before operating on Sunday, employers must notify each employee which day of the week they have for their day of rest.

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Rest Breaks

If your employer does offer short breaks (which usually last between 5 and 20 minutes), under both federal and New York state laws, these breaks are compensable and are considered when determining whether overtime was worked. This is because they’re viewed as common in the industry, and as promoting efficiency.

To be clear, genuine meal breaks (which usually last 30 minutes or longer) are not compensable because, under the FLSA, they’re viewed as serving a different purpose than coffee or snack breaks.

FLSA Cheat Sheet

Rules Concerning Minors

Sometimes an employer may choose to employ a minor since very often they don’t have families to support and need experience, and so can work for lower wages than adults. 

However, employers must be careful to comply with requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act, as well as state laws governing when and how a minor can work. 

In New York, child labor law regulates the employment of minors under 18 years of age and prohibits minors from working in certain occupations. The law limits the number of hours a minor can work (depending on age) and stipulates that minors have the same rights to meal and rest periods as adult employees (except in the case of child performers, where laws are different).

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Breastfeeding Mothers

A number of federal, state, and local laws require that an employer accommodate a lactating/breastfeeding mother, which usually means breaks and a private location for expressing breast milk. All employers covered by the FSLA must comply with federal law.

In New York, all employers must provide reasonable unpaid break time (or allow the use of a paid break or meal time) each day to express breast milk for up to three years following the birth of a child. (It’s important to note that rules for employers with four or more employees in New York City vary slightly from state law.) 

Time Requirements

In New York, employees must be given the option to choose whether to express breast milk during regularly scheduled meal and rest breaks. If the break time cannot run concurrently with the meal and rest breaks that are already provided, then break time is unpaid for nonexempt employees.

Facility Requirements

Employers must make reasonable efforts to provide a room or other location in close proximity to the work area where an employee can express breast milk with the expectation of privacy. 

Notification Policy

Employers must provide written notification of breastfeeding accommodation rights to employees who are returning to work, following the birth of a child. 

This includes the right to take unpaid leave for the purpose of expressing breast milk, and the notice may either be provided individually to affected employees or to all employees generally in an employee handbook. Employers may also post a notice in a central location. 

Helpful Articles

FLSA Cheat Sheet

The Fair Labor Standards Act is a major piece of legislation that governs numerous workplace standards and compliance measures.

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Federal Lactation Accommodations

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act employers are required to provide reasonable break time for employees to express breast milk for their nursing child.

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Employee Handbooks

Employers are strongly advised to consider including an employee handbook policy that clearly defines expectations for meals and breaks in alignment with federal and/or state law. 

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Employers should also consider distributing meal and rest break policies and procedures in writing to employees, including language covering things like uninterrupted break policies and unauthorized breaks. 

As long as the employer has expressly and unambiguously communicated to employees specific requirements concerning what’s acceptable and what isn’t, unauthorized time does not need to be counted as hours worked.

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