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Can I skip my 30-minute meal break?

Pattie Hunt Sinacole responds

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Q: I have a question. My new manager is requiring us to take a 30-minute meal break.  When we ask if we can skip it, he says, “It’s the law.” For years, we were allowed to work through our lunch hour and leave early.  I don’t understand this and if it is the law, can you share where I can find this supposed law.

A:  I need to make a few assumptions.  I need to assume you work in Massachusetts.  I also need to assume that you are working a shift of six hours or longer. 

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In most Massachusetts workplaces, an unpaid meal break of 30 minutes or longer is required. 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.  During this break, an employee should be free to leave the premises and be free of other company-related work.  As an example, an employee cannot be asked to “cover the phones” during a lunch break, unless the employee agrees to answer the phones and the employer pays the employee for this time.  There are certain industries and types of businesses that are not required to offer this meal break (e.g., iron works, glass works etc.), however, most employers must comply.  Employees can choose to voluntarily work through a meal break, which sounds like your former manager permitted.  If an employee chooses to work through his or her meal break, this time must be paid.  Although you didn’t ask, “coffee” breaks or “smoke” breaks are not required in Massachusetts.

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Sometimes managers have flexibility with allowing employees to work through their meal break and sometimes they don’t.  Some reasons for requiring employees to work through their meal break include budgetary constraints (this time must be paid) or scheduling issues (coverage may be needed at the end of an employee’s shift).  There could be an issue of fairness issue too.  Specifically, if it is done for one person, then others may come forward and ask the same request.  For example, in a retail shop, there may be many customers who come in from 4pm to 5pm.  If there are no employees to help customers at that time, you can understand how that would present a problem.  It often depends on the business.      

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For specific information on meal breaks in Massachusetts, visit https://www.mass.gov/guides/breaks-and-time-off.

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