Mealtime violations: Is my employer required to give me meal breaks?

Employees often don't know if they are entitled to time for meals

Whether employees are legally entitled to a meal break seems like it should be a fairly straightforward question. However, both employees and employers are often confused by state and federal wage and hour laws. Regulations can be complex and many employees may find that their employers' policies or practices are not in compliance, resulting in a violation of employee rights. However, in Illinois the answer is yes; hourly employees are entitled to meal breaks.

Meal breaks required by law

In Illinois, employees are entitled to mealtime under the One Day Rest in Seven Act or ODRISA (820 ILCS 140/). As provided in ODRISA, employees who work "7 1/2 continuous hours are entitled to a 20 minute meal break no later than 5 hours after beginning work." The break must be continuous and uninterrupted and does not have to be paid. This does not apply to part time employees who work less than 20 hours in a week and there are exceptions for some mental healthcare related jobs, some hotel employees and those working under a collective bargaining agreement.

Meal breaks are not required under federal law. However, since time for meals can be unpaid, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) applies. FLSA regulates the calculations used to determine the number of hours worked and when there are wage and overtime violations. This means that in order for the meal period to be unpaid and not calculated as hours worked in a week it must be a bona fide break, which is also continuous and uninterrupted.

Determining when meal breaks are considered bona fide can be complex and confusing, here are some common situations that may be considered examples of a violation:

  • The nature of the job or business needs make it necessary for an employee to "eat and run." An example would be an employee driving from client to client and eating while in the car.
  • Experiencing interruptions during meal breaks with job-related requests, which require an employee to work during a meal period. Some examples may include eating lunch while needing to complete small tasks, answer the phone or remain available to customers.
  • Payroll systems which "auto deduct" meal break time (half an hour to a full hour) from time for which an employee is paid wages, regardless of whether an employee was able to take a meal break.
  • Meal breaks that are not bona fide. To be bona fide, meal periods must be uninterrupted time (usually 20-30 minutes depending on state or federal law) where an employee is not required to perform any work duties, but is able to eat a meal. Examples may include, office workers required to eat at their desks or factory workers required to eat at their machines.

Whether an employee's mealtime is adequate can be very dependent on the facts. It is important to speak to an attorney about your situation to help you determine if there has been a violation of your rights as an employee.

A labor law attorney can help

It may seem like a half an hour for unpaid mealtimes isn't a lot. However, the law entitles hourly employees to these breaks and if you aren't getting them you are not being paid for your missed time. A half an hour or an hour here or there begins to add up quickly to wages you should have been paid. Attorney John Billhorn has 23 years of experience helping employees who have not been paid the wages to which they are entitled. If you feel you have experienced mealtime or break time violations, you may be due back pay. Contact Billhorn Law Firm to discuss your situation, answer your questions and help you pursue a claim to recover the compensation you have earned and should be paid.