States Offer a Smorgasbord of Meal and Rest Break Laws

Source: Emily Barker, Employment Relations Today, Vol 41 Issue 2, Summer 2014
(subscription required)

With no federal rule governing mandatory meal or rest periods, employers are left with a patchwork system of state laws that can be very difficult to navigate. Some states require breaks only for minors, others for all citizens, some require these breaks be provided at particular times or for a specified number of minutes, still others have no requirements at all. Because of the difficulty that employers face in harmonizing their meal-period and rest-break policies across state lines, meal and rest-break lawsuits have become a favorite of the plaintiff’s bar. Employers with operations across many states are often most at risk; a national handbook that includes a meal-period policy compliant in one state, may actually serve as a record of a blanket noncompliance elsewhere. What is more, the lack of any meal-period or rest-break policy can be used as evidence of noncompliance. The penalties that can accrue for having a noncompliant policy range from a few dollars to the thousands per violation, and some states even impose criminal sanctions for an employer’s failure to provide compliant breaks. These penalties add up quickly even for single-plaintiff lawsuits; in the class-action context, they can be devastating. Employers in each state-and especially those whose operations span multiple jurisdictions should take steps to assure that their policies and practices are in line with local laws….