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Employee Break Rules: How to Avoid Legal Risks During the Busy Holiday Season

Employment laws on employee breaks must be followed during busy holiday times. Make sure that managers & staff know your employee break policy & adhere to it.

The holidays are a busy time of year. And when things get rushed, you may be tempted to ask your employees to work through their breaks. Or your employees might volunteer to skip breaks to get the work done. Beware! If your business doesn’t fully comply with laws governing employee breaks — even during busy periods — you could be fined by the government and sued by your employees.

Here’s what you need to know to ensure full compliance with employee rest and meal break requirements.

Federal guidelines on employee breaks

While many believe the federal government requires employers to give their employees mandated rest and meal breaks, that’s simply not the case. The federal government leaves most of the regulatory authority to the states. The Department of Labor (DOL) simply offers guidance on employee breaks.

According to the DOL, it’s good practice to:

  • Give employees between five and 20 minutes to do things like visit the restroom, make personal calls or have a cup of coffee. (The DOL does require that if an employee takes short breaks, the break time should be included in — not deducted from — the employee’s regular work hours.)
  • Offer breaks if employees work over a standard meal time during their shift. Since meal breaks serve a different purpose than rest breaks, the DOL clarifies that meal breaks of more than 30 minutes should not be included as part of an employee’s paid work hours and they do not need to be compensated for this time.Want more information? Check out the DOL website for additional details on employee breaks.

State laws come into play

Compliance with employee break requirements isn’t straightforward because different states have different laws with differing penalties. This can make it difficult, especially if you have locations in more than one state. Here are some of the complexities you may have to consider:

  • Many states require a 10-minute rest break for every four hours worked
  • Some state have no rules about rest breaks at all
  • A few states require “reasonable opportunities” (undefined) for employees to eat and/or use the restroom
  • And when it comes to meal breaks, the regulations vary. Certain states, like New York, even have different ones depending on the type of employee and time of day.So, how can you determine which rules to follow? The final, definitive information should come directly from your state labor office. The DOL also provides a state-level overview of personal rest breaks and meal breaks.

Next steps to avoid risk

It’s important to comply with required break regulations during busy periods like the holidays. Demonstrating a good faith effort can go a long way toward keeping authorities at bay and reducing the potential for employee lawsuits. Here’s how:

  1. Review the requirements for the states you do business in. If state laws apply, then you need to follow them. In the absence of state guidance, check out recommendations from the DOL. Make sure you give employees enough time to take care of their personal needs so they feel comfortable and energized to do their jobs well.
  2. Communicate the rules to your employees. Do this in a team meeting, if possible, to ensure everyone hears the information from you and can get their questions answered. Explain how you want them to report their personal breaks and meal times. Follow up by distributing the rules in writing and posting them in a prominent place.
  3. Monitor employee activity right away. If there’s a problem with employees following or complying with the rules, it’s easier to fix things sooner rather than later.
  4. Spot-check compliance over time. After all, it can be easy for employees to forget rules or fall into bad habits.

Remember: State regulations set minimum break times, which you need to follow to avoid potential fines and lawsuits.

However, you may want to take things to the next level and make sure your employees have adequate time to take care of personal needs during a work shift. Giving them a few extra minutes to rest up, grab a cup of coffee or get a bite to eat could help improve their productivity and morale, which are obvious benefits to your business.

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