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Employees generally can sue their employers for a number of unfair employment practices, such as discrimination, harassment, failure to pay overtime wages and wrongful termination. However, failing to give employees lunch breaks doesn't constitute an unfair employment practice and is not, therefore, an actionable claim. Employees can't sue their employers for not giving them a lunch break in most cases.
Fair Labor Standards Act
The United States Department of Labor provides guidance to employers on the Fair Labor Standards Act, the federal rules that govern minimum wage, working hours, overtime compensation and exempt and nonexempt employee classification. The federal agency's website specifically states: "Federal law does not require lunch or coffee breaks." However, if a company has an employee manual that states that lunch breaks are allowed but the employer refuses to comply with it, the employee can sue for breach of contract. Also, if some employees are allowed lunch breaks and others working the same hours are not, the employee can sue claiming the company had set a precedent and was not treating employees equally.
Brief rest periods, coffee breaks and the like aren't required by law. However, in the interest of maintaining a satisfied workforce, the standard practice many employers follow is two short breaks -- 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the afternoon -- during a full eight-hour workday. Breaks that last just a few minutes are compensable, according to the FLSA. In fact, the FLSA says breaks that last from five minutes to 20 minutes are acceptable and should be paid time. This means, the employer cannot deduct 30 or 40 minutes of time from the employee's paycheck for taking just two short breaks throughout the day.
Employers who give their employees an hour for lunch or even a 30-minute lunch break aren't obligated to pay for that time, unless it's a requirement that the employee remain at his desk or work area and be available for work during his meal time. For example, employers must compensate a police dispatcher who must be available to take calls throughout his lunch period. On the other hand, a secretary who leaves his desk and eats lunch in the employee cafeteria for an hour doesn't have to be paid for that time.
Lunch Break Benefits
Although the law says an employee can work a full day without getting a lunch break, the majority of employers probably aren't willing to test application of a no-lunch-break rule for fear they'll lose employees to more accommodating employers. Employers that want a satisfied workforce provide employees with the freedom to take a break from their duties to restore their energy, get a bite to eat or simply clear their minds of work for a short while. A lunch break is a worthwhile benefit that costs very little, given how much it can improve the workplace climate and employee productivity.
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Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.