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How meal breaks work in Massachusetts

Q: I was just hired into a role where I was told I am eligible for paid overtime (at time and one-half) after I work forty hours. However, no one has mentioned lunch breaks. How does this work when an employee regularly works more than 8 hours per day? Do I get a lunch break? Is it paid or unpaid? Everyone working in this office seems to eat at their desk and work through lunch.

A: Most employees in Massachusetts are covered by the state's meal break law. Your employer must offer you a 30-minute meal break by law if you work six or more hours in a single shift. This 30-minute meal break is unpaid. This law does not apply to certain industries in Massachusetts, including those employers in the iron, glass, print, bleach, dye, paper and letterpress industries. Employees can choose to voluntarily work through a meal break, which sounds like the situation at your work location. If an employee chooses to work through his or her meal break, this time must be paid. Many employees think employers are required to offer a "lunch hour" but this is not the case.

Additionally, an employee must have the freedom to leave their workplace during this meal break. An employee should not be assigned other duties during this meal break or else it really isn’t a meal break. For example, an employee can’t be asked to cover the front desk or phones for another department during his or her meal break. The employee should be free from all work-related responsibilities.

Employers can be liable for breaking this law. This law is enforced by the Massachusetts attorney general’s offices. For more information on workplace rights within Massachusetts, visit http://www.mass.gov/ago/docs/workplace/wage/wagehourbrochure-final.pdf.

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