Under Massachusetts law, employees who work more than six hours a day must be allowed at least thirty minutes unpaid time for a meal break. A violation of the meal time provision is subject to fines between $300 and $600.
Employees are entitled to meal time compensation if their movement is restricted during the break or if the employee is required to perform a job function during the break. The decision to waive a meal break must be voluntary and only the employee has the power to waive a meal period.
Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, if an employer provides a lunch break, and the employee eats during the break, the employer still may have to pay for the entire lunch period, depending on what else the employee does during that time. The test for when a meal period may be unpaid is as follows: “As long as the employee can pursue his or her mealtime adequately and comfortably, is not engaged in the performance of any substantial duties, and does not spend time predominantly for the employer’s benefit the time is not compensable.”
Employer’s meal break policies may create an environment where their employees perform off-the-clock work without compensation in violation of the FLSA. Employers are responsible for ensuring their employees are not working through unpaid meal periods, and employees should not work without compensation during their meal periods.
The consequences for having an uncompensated employee who works through their meal break time can be substantial. Frequently, employers instruct their payroll companies to automatically deduct 30 minutes of pay from their employees’ wages without ensuring the employees did not actually work during this time. If this practice goes on for a substantial period of time, an employer can be liable to each employees who worked through their break at three times the employee’s hourly wage rate for every 30 minute break worked through.