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Different lunch breaks within same company

Q: I work in a small company in an office type of environment. Some of our company employees take a whole hour for lunch and have time to go out for lunch and walk to a local lunch place. In our department, we can only take 30 or 40 minutes because we are always short on help. This doesn't seem fair to me. Is this legal?

A: In Massachusetts, most employees, who are scheduled to work six hours or more in a single work shift, are required to be given a 30-minute meal break. The break does not have to be paid. In fact, most employers do not pay for this break. There are some employers who do not have to follow this law. These exceptions include employers in the iron, glass, print, bleach, dye, paper and letterpress industries. Employees should be relieved of all work-related responsibilities during this break, including answering the phones or waiting for a delivery. When on a meal break, an employee should also be able to leave their work location. Employees can decide to work through their lunch and "waive" this right but that choice should be a voluntary choice, made by the employee, not the employer. If the employee works through their meal break the employee should be paid for the time worked.

Many employees think a whole hour is required but that is not the case. Thirty minutes is required but anything beyond that is not required in most work environments. Managers often require specific work schedules and may require varying meal break times so work does not come to a standstill. Also, meal breaks may vary between departments or functional areas. For example, if a teller works in a downtown branch of a bank, a manager may request that the teller take a 30-minute meal break at 11am or 1pm, rather than at noon. Others in the bank may take a 45-minute meal break at noon.

From what you have shared, it sounds like your employer is operating in a legally compliant manner. Variations in work schedules are permitted.

by Pattie Hunt Sinacole

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