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Flexibility in meal breaks

Q: Can an employer prevent me from taking the MA state law required 30 minute meal break at the end of the work day (i.e., 8:30-5 schedule - leave at 4:30)? Can they require the meal break to be on premises and if not, can they require I inform them I am leaving the premises?

A: In Massachusetts, employers are required to offer employees a 30-minute meal break after six consecutive hours of work in a single work day. Coffee breaks and other similar breaks are not required in Massachusetts. A meal break is typically unpaid. Employers can arrange an employee’s schedule to best meet the needs of the business (within reason). For example, retail stores often require employees to take their meal breaks according to a specific schedule during the day. Or else they lunch time shoppers might arrive to find a store without any sales help!

An employer can also allow employees to leave early in lieu of taking their meal break. An employer can allow this if it meets their business needs. Sometimes this is especially helpful to the employee because of childcare concerns or bus/train schedules. An employee can also voluntarily forfeit their meal break and work through the meal break if the employer agrees.

An employee taking a bonafide meal break must be relieved of all work-related responsibilities and must be permitted to leave the premises. Often times, I get asked, “Can I have Mary cover the phones during her lunch break? We can have them forwarded to the lunch room.” An employer can ask an employee to cover the phones but this does not count as Mary’s meal break. Mary must be offered another 30-minute time slot as her meal break. Mary also must have the freedom to leave the premises.

This law does not apply to certain industries in Massachusetts, including those employers in the iron, glass, print, bleach, dye, paper and letterpress industries. Also, the attorney general’s office in Massachusetts can grant waivers to factories or plants but rarely is such a waiver granted.

Employers can be liable for breaking this law. In Massachusetts, an employer can be fined from $300 to $600 per violation. If an employer is found liable, the employer also may face other financial costs like mandatory treble damages, the expenses involved in litigation as well as attorney’s fees. This law is enforced by the Massachusetts attorney general’s office. The following link provides more information about workplace rights in the state of Massachusetts. http://www.mass.gov/Cago/docs/Workplace/wagehourbrochure_final.pdf

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