Employee breaks: Myths dispelled

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.



Myth 2: If a break is paid, employees don’t have to punch out, or otherwise write the break time down.

Wrong, for several reasons. The most important being recordkeeping requirements, a topic that is beyond the scope of this article. Another is worker’s compensation. This is also an entirely separate topic worthy of several of its own posts, but to illustrate how complex this can get suppose the following situation. Your employee is on a paid lunch break. You did not have her clock out and otherwise record the actual time of day she left for lunch. You generally don’t have her perform any work during a paid lunch break, and you don’t care where she goes or what she does (for the most part) while on lunch. She drives down the street to get her lunch. In the process, she gets into a motor vehicle accident and sustains whiplash, the severity of which is not apparent until the next day (so she finished out her work shift). You did not have her clock back into work or otherwise record the time of day she returned from lunch. Regardless of whose fault the accident is, you need to determine whether this is a worker’s compensation claim (i.e., a work-related injury). 

The employee was on lunch and not working, so of course it’s not worker’s compensation, right? Well, further suppose that the employee has no insurance and a friend tells her to file a worker’s compensation claim to get her bills covered. So she does. That all takes several weeks, or even months, and then your worker’s compensation carrier contacts you and asks for the employee’s time records for that day. The records show she worked from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. So, it’s covered; she was working. But you know she wasn’t. Can you prove it? If not, you may find yourself with liability for a worker’s compensation claim and a resulting increase in your worker’s compensation insurance premium. Solid records, showing actual time worked and breaks separately, can prevent messes like this one.

Bottom line: let your employees eat. If you don’t want to pay for the time, give them 30 minutes of freedom. And make them record the time they leave for lunch and the time they return, not just that they took a lunch break.

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