At the start of July, Dollar General employees filed a class action lawsuit against the company in a Tennessee federal court for violations of the FLSA and state labor laws. The employees alleged that during their meal breaks, they were not allowed to leave store premises, meaning that the break did not constitute a bona fide meal break under the FLSA. This case raises a good question: Do employers have to give employees rest and meal breaks?
Interestingly, federal law does not require that employees be given meal breaks. The FLSA does, however, require that employers who opt to provide rest breaks lasting 20 minutes or less pay employees for this time. The FLSA does not require employers to pay employees during bona fide meal breaks but explains that such unpaid meal breaks must be completely lacking in work related duties. If the employee is forced to work during this time, even if the break is labeled as a “meal break,” the employer must compensate the employee. The Dollar General employees argue that because they were forced to remain on store premises during meal breaks, they were not truly able to rest because they were constantly available to other employee’s and customer’s demands and requests. Luckily, the State of New York is one of 21 states that legally requires employers to provide meal and rest breaks; however, only rest breaks must be compensated, not meal breaks, under New York law. New York’s law with respect to rest periods mirrors the federal requirement – if a short break is given, it must be paid.
In New York State, if you work in a factory (an anachronistic reference which applies broadly to manufacturing and mass production), you must be given an hour long lunch break. All other employees who work six or more hours spanning from 11:00 a.m. through 2:00 p.m. must be given at least 30 minutes for lunch. If an employee works a shift that starts before 11:00 a.m. and continues through 7:00 p.m., the employee should receive an additional meal break lasting at least 20 minutes between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Furthermore, any employee who has a shift of six hours or longer beginning at 1:00 p.m. is entitled to a 45 minute meal break midway through the shift. While these breaks do not need to be paid, like under the FLSA, employees who are forced to work through their lunch break must be paid for them.
If you are a New York employee who is being deprived of rest and meal breaks or are being forced to work through your unpaid meal breaks, contact an attorney who can help you assert your rights under the FLSA and New York State Labor Law.