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What Happened

At Good Guys Construction Co., jobsite supervisors schedule the workday for all field employees. Last pay period, the team was under a tight schedule to get a certain job completed. On one day the supervisor told his hourly (nonexempt) employees that, to meet the required deadline, they would have to skip lunch. The employees complained, claiming that lunch breaks are required by law. Seeking a compromise, the super­visor asked each field employee to take a 15-minute unpaid lunch that day instead of the usual 30 minutes.

Why It’s Wrong

First, note that federal labor laws, and many state labor laws, do not require employers to provide a lunch period or break period to their employees who are over 18 years of age. In this case, however, the supervisor’s compromise actually violated a federal Wage and Hour regulation, which says that when any unpaid break or “bona fide meal period” is offered, it must “typically last at least 30 minutes.” In contrast, when employers offer short breaks, defined as “usually lasting 5 to 20 minutes,” the time is considered compensable work hours and must be paid.

What You Should Do

Carefully review your internal policies on lunch periods and short breaks and communicate these policies to your supervisors. When working conditions require an exception to established policies, the employees’ final timesheets should be carefully reviewed and adjusted to comply with Wage and Hour regulations. In the case of Good Guys Construction Co., the employer should pay the employees for the 15-minute “lunch” which, because it is too short to be considered an unpaid lunch, must be considered paid time.

Douglas Delp is founder of The Delp Group (delpgroup.com), which provides human resources, benefits, insurance, and payroll services to small businesses.