Meal and rest breaks are considered a standard perk at most workplaces, and yet they’re not actually mandated by federal law. At the federal level, employers are only required to compensate breaks lasting less than 20 minutes, should they choose to provide them (the one exception being nursing breaks for mothers, a minimum level of which are required by federal law — we’ll cover this more later). It’s actually up to the states themselves to determine if and when employers have to make these breaks available to employees, which means the standards are different all over the country.
Work break laws can be broken down into four major categories based on the people and circumstances they cover:
- Breaks for minors
- Meal breaks
- Rest breaks
- Nursing breaks
While some states have no mandated work breaks, most of them call for employers to provide one or more of the breaks listed above.
Understanding your state’s rest and meal breaks help ensure that you’re fully compliant and properly measuring overtime. And if your business has employees across multiple states, you of course need to make sure you’re meeting each one’s unique standards at your different locations. Below, we’re going to talk about each type of meal and rest break law, explain what it means to your business, and lay out which states it applies to.
State meal or rest break laws by category
No mandated breaks
In the states listed below, private employers of any size are not required to provide meal or rest breaks for any workers. They also don’t add to the federal government’s minimum requirements for nursing breaks. This does not mean that employers in these states do not offer breaks, but simply that the law does not require it.
- Montana (break is paid if less than 30 minutes)
- New Mexico (break is paid if less than 30 minutes)
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
Required paid rest breaks
Rest breaks tend to run anywhere from 5-20 minutes, but states have different requirements for how long they have to be or how long a shift has to last to make a rest break necessary. Most states though require companies to offer at least 10 minutes of compensated rest breaks for every four hours worked. Each state’s laws include exemptions based on the industry, bargaining agreements, and when the break must occur.
States with paid rest break mandates for private employers include:
You can see the specifics of each state’s rest break laws on the Department of Labor website here. Keep in mind that many of these states also require meal breaks, which we cover below.
Required meal breaks
Meal breaks differ from “rest breaks” not just in their stated purpose, but also in how long they have to last and when they’re meant to occur. Typically, meal breaks have to be longer than rest breaks, with laws calling for anywhere from the somewhat vague “reasonable amount of time to eat” to 30 minutes. In most cases — again, depending on the state — managers are required to offer a meal break if the employee’s shift exceeds five to seven consecutive hours. For the most part, the meal break is unpaid if the employee is completely relieved of all duties during this time.
States with required meal breaks for private employers include:
- New Hampshire
- New York
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- West Virginia
- Puerto Rico
You can find specific breakdowns of each of those states’ meal break laws on the Department of Labor’s website here.
Meal and rest breaks for minors
Several states have laws protecting minors from working beyond a certain number of hours without a meal or rest break. The definition of “minor” can vary state by state as well. For the most part, a minor is defined as anyone under the age of 18, though some states only have mandates for 14 and 15-year-old employees. Additionally, some states only mandate breaks for minors working in the entertainment or agricultural industries. Due to these variations, be sure to check your individual state laws for specifics.
Though each state’s laws differ slightly, most states mandate a 30-minute meal break after a minor has worked continuously for a specific length of time, usually between four and six hours. For example, minors in Indiana must receive at least 30 minutes of rest — either all in one break or broken up across two — on days when they work for six continuous hours.
States with laws for meal and/or rest breaks specifically for minors include:
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Carolina
- West Virginia
Required nursing breaks
At the federal level, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employers to provide reasonable breaks and private space other than a bathroom stall for breastfeeding mothers up to a year after their child’s birth. Companies of less than 50 employees, however, receive an exemption if the requirements impose an “undue hardship” on the employer.
But some states set higher standards for nursing breaks. For example, some stipulate a specific age for children up until nursing breaks must be available. Others have rules around whether the nursing break can run concurrently with existing rest and meal breaks.
Overall, the states below have further requirements for nursing breaks beyond those laid out in the FLSA:
- New Jersey
- New York
You can see the specific differences for each state here.
Know the law, stay compliant
When it comes to meal and rest break laws, states fill in the gaps around federal mandates as they see fit. Make sure you understand what breaks are required in your state before you build your employees’ schedule, or you could risk running afoul of local labor laws.