Can my employer dictate when employees take a rest break?

In most jurisdictions, an employer has the right to determine when and where employee breaks take place. Federal law does not require that employees be given rest break opportunities, but as of 2011, nine states require breaks. These include California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. These states have minimum rest break requirements that apply to private sector employees in varying ways.

Rest Break Requirements in California and Vermont

In California, for example, an employer must grant a 10-minute rest break for every four hours worked. To the extent practicable, these employee breaks must occur in the middle of each work period. However, no rest break is necessary if total daily work time is less than three and one-half hours. No deduction from wages may be made for authorized rest time.

Vermont’s minimum rest break law is not as detailed. In Vermont, employees must be given “reasonable opportunities during work periods to eat and use toilet facilities in order to protect the health and hygiene of the employee.” Vermont’s rest break law has no specific coverage limitations, meaning it applies to all private sector employees (with possible exceptions for executives, professional employees, and outside salespersons).

It’s worth noting that California’s law explicitly excludes professional actors, personal attendants, and sheepherders. California also allows employers in most industries to apply to the CA Division of Labor Standards Enforcement for an exemption from the rest break requirement, if they can show “undue hardship.”

What an Employer Can Allow and Forbid During a Rest Break

In addition to determining when a worker can take a rest break, an employer can generally determine what the worker is allowed to do on that break. If business policies state that employees must remain on the worksite during business hours, and you as an employee have signed a contract agreeing to adhere to business policies while employed there, then you must stay on the worksite during your rest break.

In most states with these laws (Washington, for example), employees who face limitations or business duties while on their employee breaks are generally required to be paid even for their break time. The only employees that do not need to be paid during their employee breaks are those whose breaks have no limitations. These employees can leave the worksite or are not required to remain on duty.

If you belong to a union, your shop representative will be able to answer your questions about employee breaks. If not, ask your company's human resource department. Additional questions about employee breaks can be directed to your state's Department of Labor or Department of Employment.