Our Ask the Expert mailbox has an interesting question posed by a reader who wants to know whether an employer can make you work standing up for eight hours without allowing you to “sit down” for meal breaks or rest breaks.
Wow. The work conditions you describe sound less than ideal. But are they illegal? The answer is not as simple as you might think.
To start with, questions regarding work hours, lunch breaks and other rest breaks are governed by state wage and hour laws. So the answer really depends on which state you are located in. (The federal Fair Labor Standards Act establishes certain minimum standards, but under the separation of powers the states can establish additional requirements.)
Perhaps the more fundamental question is whether meal or rest breaks are legally required at all. You might be surprised by what you find.
I’m in North Carolina and a quick Internet search of the North Carolina Department of Labor turned up this link to frequently asked questions on the State’s website. Right at the top was the question of whether an employer is required to give meal breaks or rest breaks. As long as the employee is 16 years of age or older, the answer is no. But if the employee is 14 or 15 years old, North Carolina law requires a 30 minute break after 5 hours of work.
Now compare the North Carolina answer to California’s. A similar Internet search of the California Department of Industrial Relations website revealed a somewhat different answer. In California all employees are entitled to a meal break after 5 hours, but if you only work 6 hours in total you and your employer can mutually agree to waive the meal break requirement.
Beyond that, California has different criteria regarding what’s permissible depending on whether the employee is “on duty” during the meal break or not, whether the employee is required to stay on site during the meal break, and whether the employee is working in the motion picture industry. The reference to the motion picture industry is of course a nod to one of the state’s most visible industries. Other state’s wage and hour laws may include special language to reflect their agriculture heritage, an industrial heritage, or a particular industry (the way California does).
That’s why the answer to the reader’s question is not so simple and a search of your own state’s department of labor website might surprise you.
To conduct such an Internet search, start by using the name of your state and the phrase “department of labor” as search terms. See what pops up, but keep in mind that what you find may not necessarily be comprehensive. To be certain about whether your employer can legally keep you on your feet for 8 hours during meal and rest breaks it’s best to speak with an employment law expert in your area who knows all the quirks of your state wage and hour laws and can match those requirements to your specific job and industry.