Rules about lunch and meal breaks vary from workplace to workplace, or even from state to state. As a result, it can be complicated for workers to navigate the specific rules at their given place of employment. One common question concerns whether it’s permissible for a worker to refuse a lunch break. The Balance aims to answer this and other questions regarding the legality of lunch and meal breaks for workers.
Working through a lunch break is a sticking point for many employers. While lunch breaks can be unpaid, employees working through lunch must be paid for the time they put in. This is true even if the worker was told that he or she must take a lunch break. Ultimately, it’s up to the employer to enforce the laws regarding breaks, and if they’re unable to do so, no matter the reason, they are still responsible for remitting payment.
However, that doesn’t mean that an employer can’t somehow punish the worker for the indiscretion. It’s fully within the employer’s rights to discipline the worker who commonly flouts rules regarding lunch breaks. An employer may even be able to fire the worker for repeated issues, provided they’ve taken the proper steps to document the termination and counsel the worker.
Employers can also dictate when workers take their breaks. This is often necessary for managerial staff, as you want to rest assured that someone with authority is available at all times to answer questions and deal with issues. Exempt workers, or those that are not beholden to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) rules regarding overtime laws, are generally allowed to take breaks as they see fit, while non-exempt workers usually have scheduled breaks.