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Employees Too Busy to Take a Lunch or Rest Break: Why It Should Be Your Next Strategic Concern

Let's tackle all the questions regarding skipping lunch and rest breaks
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Let’s not tiptoe around the obvious: you’re here because your employees are too busy—or claim to be too busy—to take lunch or rest breaks during their workday. 

This issue is not just an HR concern; it’s a ticking time bomb affecting your bottom line and employee well-being and possibly setting you up for legal hurdles.

Let’s be very straightforward - some state break laws are a breeding ground for PAGA claims and class-action suits and can cost your business quite a lot of money. For small businesses, the consequences can be devastating.

So what can you do in situations like this one, when your employees tend to skip their breaks or inappropriately take them?

Today, we will tackle all the questions regarding skipping lunch and rest breaks employers nowadays can’t afford to ignore.

But Why Is an Employee Not Taking a Lunch Break a Problem?

Depending on the relevant laws along with the hours of work, you could find yourself treading on thin ice —even if it’s the employee’s choice. 

When your employee says, “I don’t want to take a lunch break,” you must consider all the potential legal consequences, which in states like California can cost you a lot of money.

Then again, there are specific jobs that require high levels of concentration or physical exertion. In some professions, breaks are necessary for safety and health reasons, such as in the transportation or healthcare industry.

Taking the time to understand employment laws and break requirements can encourage your employees to comply with rules designed to protect them.

So, What Does the Federal Law Say?

Believe it or not, you shouldn’t turn to the FLSA for guidance on lunch breaks—you will hardly find any direction there. 

While the Fair Labor Standards Act sets standards for minimum wage, overtime, and child labor, it’s surprisingly silent on compulsory meal or rest breaks. 

What it does clarify is the financial aspect: short breaks of up to 20 minutes count as work time. 

Lunch breaks of 30 minutes or longer? Not so much.

According to the FLSA, 30-minute lunch breaks serve a different purpose than a snack or a coffee break and don’t count as working time.

This creates a scenario where employees might opt for shorter, paid breaks to boost their payable working time, even if it harms their well-being and productivity.

But, regarding the FLSA, the fact that your employee is not taking lunch breaks is not a violation, as the Act doesn’t mandate meal breaks in the first place.

State Laws: The Game Changes Here

Many states have established state break laws that outline specifics regarding meal and rest breaks. And the trouble is - these laws significantly vary. 

States with specific lunch break requirements include, but are not limited to, California, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia. You can find a complete list of state meal break laws and requirements at the Department of Labor’s site.

We’ll begin with the strictest of them so you can get an idea of the challenges you may face in your practice. 

The California Twist

As we’ve said - state laws do vary, but California has its rulebook. 

A typical eight-hour shift in California demands not just a 30-minute meal break but also mandated rest periods—yes, that’s plural. 

For every four hours of work, your employee is entitled to a 10-minute rest break. Miss it, and you’re looking at a penalty that could be an extra hour of pay.

Then comes the meal break. If your team members work for more than five hours, a 30-minute unpaid meal break is a must. During this period, employees must be relieved of all work duties.  

But here’s where it gets interesting: employer and employee can mutually agree to waive this meal break if the workday is at most six hours.

Confused? You’re not alone.

The list of break-related rules and provisions gets more complex, with the specifics on work periods when breaks should be used, on-duty meal requirements, etc. 

If you’re running a business in California, you can learn more about these requirements from our article on California meal and rest break laws, but make sure you always seek legal advice from wage and hour law experts in your state. 

So, Can an Employee Refuse to Take a Lunch Break in California?

If a non-exempt employee doesn’t take their half-hour lunch break in California, claiming they are too busy with work, you should remind them of their right to break time and encourage them to take it.

It’s essential to create a work environment where all your employees feel comfortable taking their legally mandated lunch periods and rest breaks. Establish the Employee Breaks Policy that clearly explains the expectations regarding breaks. Employees must be aware of what breaks they’re required to and what is a compliant way to use them. 

But, if an employee still chooses not to take a break, no matter the reason, California law requires that you pay them “premium pay” - one extra hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate for each workday that the meal period is not provided. The rule stands for both the meal and the rest breaks. 

Besides tracking employees’ working hours, the California Labor Law also requires you to track employees’ meal breaks. 

Timeero’s California Breaks Tracker feature is designed to make it easy for you and your employees to track and verify their breaks.

timeero mobilie app breaks tracking
Using the Timeero app, employees can track their breaks easily.

The app will remind your employees to take a break timely, and your employees can start and end their breaks with just a tap. 

timeero breaks reminder mobile
You can set up reminders so that your employees don’t forget about their breaks.

By filling out the Daily Sign-Off form, they can attest to taking their breaks, safeguarding you against potential legal headaches.

timeero mobile daily sign off form
California employees need to verify their breaks using the Daily Sign-Off Form.

If an employee consistently refuses to take their breaks, you may want to consult a legal wage and hour professional or a law firm to ensure you’re handling the situation correctly and complying with all relevant laws.

And What About Other State Laws?

Figuring out meal break laws in the U.S. is like a patchwork—each state has its own rules. Here’s a brief overview of the variations you can come across in the practice.

  • California, Colorado: If employees work over 5 hours, they must get a 30-minute break.
  • Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois: Employees get a 30-minute break after 7.5 hours.
  • Maine, Massachusetts: Once employees hit 6 hours of work, they are entitled to a 30-minute break.
  • Minnesota, Nebraska: Minnesota gives a break after 8 hours, while Nebraska’s 8-hour rule applies only to specific industries like manufacturing.
  • Nevada, New Hampshire: In Nevada, the 8-hour rule applies. In New Hampshire, it’s after 5 hours.
  • New York: After 6 hours of work, employees get a break. Plus, if the workday stretches from 11 am morning to 7 pm, they get an extra 20 minutes.
  • Vermont: Employers must provide a reasonable opportunity for employees to eat and rest.

Some states have specific rules for minors, adding an extra layer of protection. For example, in Delaware, Illinois, and Kentucky, minors working 5 hours must take a 30-minute break. Unique to Florida, minors cannot work over 4 consecutive hours without a 30-minute break.

Rest break requirements also vary across states: Just like in California, Colorado also mandates a 10-minute paid break every 4 hours. In Illinois, there are specialized rules for hotel room attendants: a minimum of two 15-minute paid rest breaks are required for a 7-hour workday.

Disclaimer: This list is for informational purposes only. It is not exhaustive and doesn’t contain all the provisions and requirements. And, of course, you should always keep an eye on local labor laws.

As you can see, variations are significant. Both employers and employees must know the relevant break requirements, rights, and responsibilities.

So, now that we’re aware of regulatory diversity let’s dive deeper into the burning employer questions.

Can I Force an Employee to Take a Break?

As an employer, you can require your employees to take a break. However, many things depend on the labor laws in your location and your jurisdiction.

As we already know, federal law doesn’t require rest or meal breaks, but as we’ve seen on our list, some states do. 

If the relevant law or employee breaks policy instructs your employees to take a break, and they decide not to, you should keep track and document it. Plus, in California, if an employee chooses not to take a meal or rest break, you must pay them the premium pay on the next paycheck.

However, it’s also within your rights to discipline a worker who commonly violates rules regarding break periods. Still, it’s crucial to have the disciplinary measures defined in your company’s policy, acknowledged, and signed by your employee.

By opting for real-time tracking features in modern GPS time tracker tools, such as Timeero, you can set automated reminders for your team, urging them to take their mandated rest. 

Plus, you will have timely and accurate information about where your employees are using their breaks in a compliant manner or skipping them so that your human resources team can act accordingly.

Can an Employee Refuse to Take a Break?

Again, this largely depends on relevant state laws. 

We’ve mentioned above that in specific jobs, such as in the healthcare or transportation industry, employees mustn’t refuse breaks and could face sanctions for doing so. 

An employer may even be able to fire the worker for repeated violations if they’ve taken adequate steps to counsel the worker and document the violations.

In states where the law requires breaks, there are sometimes options to waive a break by a mutual agreement of employer and employee.

What If My Employee Doesn’t Want to Take a Break?

If an employee chooses to work through a break, it’s a decision that can be a liability for your business. You must try to understand the why behind this behavior and address the issue. 

Some state laws address specific scenarios. For example, in California, If the work shift lasts more than five but no longer than 6 hours, your employees may choose to waive their meal break. The waiver should be in written form and with the mutual voluntary consent of the employee and the employers. 

Advanced break management tools, such as Timeero, offer functionalities to capture this waiver, keeping you legally secure.

But, if employees do not take mandated breaks and there is no option for a waiver, address the issue through team meetings and regulate it in your employee breaks policy. 

How Can Timeero Help Me Better Manage Employee Breaks

Managing breaks might feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Timeero, our advanced GPS time tracker tool, is tailored for busy employers like you. 

So, how can it help you manage your employees’ breaks?

  • Set up your custom break policy. Once you have the employee breaks policy established, you can use Timeero to support it in everyday practice. You can predefine breaks and assign them to your employees and keep track of how they’re using it.

timeero break settings admin view
Set up your Employee Breaks Policy using Timeero.

If you still haven’t established an Employee Breaks Policy in your company, check out our guide for creating one, or download a free template and adjust it to your needs.

  • Log breaks with a mobile app. Your employees can log their assigned breaks right from the app.

timeero mobile time clock and timesheets view
Timeero lets employees track their hours, overtime, and breaks and view their timesheets.

  • California Breaks Tracker. Achieve compliance with California Meal and Rest Break laws with this dedicated tracker and minimize the potential costs of non-compliance. Enforce your California breaks policy and assign it to your employees. 

timeero california breaks settings
Timeero lets you enforce the California Breaks Policy.

The app will remind your employees of their breaks on time and have them complete and submit the Daily Sign-Off form before they clock out. If an employee is non-compliant, you will receive notifications and can act upon it. 

timeero breaks reminder settings
Set up reminders for your California employees.

  • Audit breaks. Easily see breaks from the admin board Time and Mileage view or generate break reports for more details. If you’re running a business in California, you can also run Daily Sign-Offs Reports.

timeero daily sign off reports admin
Regularly audit employees’ breaks for compliance.

Besides keeping track of your employees’ breaks, Timeero lets you track their working hours, overtime, and PTO. At the same time, you can use it to track the whereabouts and mileage, schedule and manage them more efficiently.

For more information, read our detailed Timeero review.

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