Enforcing Work Break Time Limits

clock-594178_1280It can start out as a minor, even overlooked, irritation for managers and supervisors: Employees stretching out work breaks by one or two or three minutes. It becomes a minor headache when they stretch out 10-minute work breaks to 15 minutes. Then it becomes a major headache for managers and supervisors when the 10 minute break becomes 15 minutes or longer.

When employees consistently stretch out the length of work breaks, it’s time for employers to look at their work break policy.

Does your work break policy address who is eligible to take work breaks? When are work breaks scheduled? Where do employees take their breaks? How much time do they have for taking breaks? What discipline do you use for abuse of work breaks?

Most states leave up to the employer the issue of whether work breaks will be offered or not. However, some states have regulations on work breaks.  If your state doesn’t have any regulations on work breaks you are free to develop your policy as you see fit.

The challenge: Usually the biggest problem with work breaks is getting employees to return to work in a timely manner.

One way to solve this is to stop it before it becomes a problem. You clearly state how much time is allotted for breaks and require your supervisors and managers to enforce those time limits. You treat late returns from work breaks as tardiness and attach discipline.

That’s one approach to deal with abuse of work breaks. Are there other alternatives to traditional work breaks and disciplinary enforcement of violations of the time limit? Consider these:

  • Allow employees to work longer at the end of their work day or work shift to make up for excessive time taken on a break.
  • Allow employees to set their own break times, so long as their performance meets management’s expectations.
  • Allow employees to voluntarily skip work breaks (if allowed by your state law) and leave work earlier at the end of the day or shift.
  • If your state law does not require giving employees work breaks, or breaks of defined length, take away the break benefit from employees who abuse it, for a period of several days or weeks. Or if a large percentage of employees are abusing the break time, end the break benefit for all employees for several days or weeks.

Important: Time spent in breaks (including meal breaks) of 20 minutes or less is paid time under U.S. federal law. In addition, time spent in meal breaks running more than 20 minutes is paid time if the employee is required to frequently perform work duties during that time or if the employee must remain “on call” to frequently perform work duties during that time.

The factors used by the federal Department of Labor (DOL) and courts to determine if a specific “on call” situation requires payment of wages to non-exempt employees are complex. If you require an employee to be “on call” during meal breaks, consult with a DOL office or an attorney to learn if this break time is compensable.


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