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Sep 20, 201612:44 PMLaw at Work

with Jessica M. Kramer and Ashlie B. Johnson

Employee breaks: Myths dispelled

(page 1 of 2)

The ins and outs of providing breaks at work for employees might seem obvious, but there are some things to consider before you find yourself with bigger problems than hungry workers with rumbling stomachs. Here are two frequently held beliefs, or myths, about employee breaks and the truth about what's required of you, the employer.

Myth 1: I have to give my employees breaks.

Wrong. Well, sometimes wrong — it depends. If your employee is a minor, then yes, Wisconsin law requires that you give a duty-free (that is, free from employment duties) meal period of a least 30 consecutive minutes if the employee, who is under 18 years of age, works six consecutive hours or longer. 

However, for employees ages 18 and over working in Wisconsin, all that is really required is an opportunity to eat a meal. No actual “break” is required at all. What does this mean? Depending on the type of job, a working lunch may be feasible. If it is, that is fine as long as you are paying the employee for eating while working (or working while eating, if that makes it sound better).

If you choose to give employees set breaks, which most employers do (and, let’s face it, it’s the reasonable thing to do), keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • If the break is less than 30 consecutive minutes long, it must be paid. (Giving two 15-minute breaks does not equal a 30-minute unpaid lunch. Nice try.)
  • An unpaid break must be completely duty-free. If the employee performs any work at all during the break, it must be paid. This includes answering calls, reading/responding to emails, and greeting clients or customers.
  • If the employee is required to remain on the employer’s premises during the break, it must be paid.

Okay, so if I give breaks, how long should the breaks last? 

Although there is no hard and fast rule, Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development, the state agency that oversees all matters relating to labor standards, wages, and hours, recommends 30 minutes when the employee’s shift lasts six hours or more, as it is considered to be a sufficient opportunity to eat a meal. Anything shorter would be a paid meal period, which could be while working or not. However, if you decide to give your employees an unpaid meal period, at least 30 minutes is required. The Department of Workforce Development also recommends that the meal break be given reasonably close to the usual meal period time or near the middle of a shift. Other, non-meal breaks of shorter duration are completely discretionary, as to whether to give them at all, as well as frequency and length.


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About This Blog

Jessica M. Kramer is a partner at Kramer, Elkins & Watt LLC in Madison and writes about employment law. At KEW she handles employment law matters for businesses and individuals, and represents landlords in all aspects of landlord-tenant law. Jessica received her undergraduate degree from UW–Madison in 2000 and her Juris Doctor from the UW Law School in 2004.

 Ashlie B. Johnson, PHR, is the owner of Brooke Human Resource Solutions, serving the Dane County area. BrookeHR operates as an independent HR contracting resource for small businesses, providing a wide range of support as well as policy language, documentation, and employment agreements that meet today’s complex compliance standards. Ashlie received her B.S. in Human Resource Management from St. Cloud State University in 2002 and has been a certified PHR since 2007.



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