(Lunch) Breaks and the Law

Lunch breaks? What lunch breaks? Yes, bona fide breaks can be hard to come by in nursing (for reasons we’ll get into another time), but that doesn’t stop some employers from forcing lunch breaks on nurses. Here’s what the law has to say about it all.


To break or not to break. Is that the question?

Some nurses find it quite hard to break away from their patients for a proper, 30-minute, uninterrupted break. However, some employers are requiring nurses to take lunch breaks (or else!).

Can an employer force you to take a lunch break? Yes, they can. If you refuse to take a lunch break, the employer may discipline you for not taking the break. However, the nurse must be completely relieved from duty for the purpose of eating for 30 minutes or greater for the break to be considered a bona fide meal period. Eating at the nurse’s station while performing some duties, whether active or inactive, does not count as a meal break.

Furthermore, the break cannot consist of smaller breaks added together. A 15-minute uninterrupted break here, a 5-minute break there, and another 10-minute break pieced together does not equal one uninterrupted break. The bona fide meal break must be 30-minutes or greater of continuous uninterrupted time.


But will I get paid if I work through a lunch break?

Yes, you will get paid. If you don’t clock out for a lunch, the employer must pay you for the time. It is illegal for them to not pay you for that time worked.

If the employer doesn’t want to pay you, then that’s a problem. If the employer deletes your time worked to save face, then that is also a big problem. We hear often of this happening. Next time, tell your boss, HR rep, whomever that will listen: it is ILLEGAL for an employer to delete time worked.


What about other breaks?

Shorter breaks (hello bathroom!?) of 20 minutes or less must be counted as hours worked, and typically union contracts or employer policies outline how many short breaks are allowable.

New moms who need to express breast milk may not get paid for this break time, however. Though the law does require employers provide break time and space for nursing mothers for one year, it doesn’t specify that this must be paid time. Check your union contract or employer’s policies for more information.


My employer’s actions are suspect. What do I do?

If you think your employer is breaking the law, here’s what to do:

  • Get with your union representative. Your union will fight illegal practices such as this through the grievance process, and is the most efficient way to reach a resolution.
  • If you don’t have a union (if interested, find out more here), get with HR. They should be well-versed in labor law.
  • If HR doesn’t prove fruitful, contact that Wage and Hour Theft division with the Department of Labor. You can do that here.


Information obtained for this article may be found here: https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-29/subtitle-B/chapter-V/subchapter-B/part-785/subpart-C/subject-group-ECFR3d1222debcd8ec6/