Forced Lunch Breaks

Someone recently called Gold Star Law looking for our employment lawyers’ advice on a wage and hour employment law issue.  The caller works for a company that requires employees to take a half-hour lunch every work day around the middle of a full-day shift.  She works in an hourly, non-exempt position, which means that she is entitled to pay for all hours worked and overtime pay for overtime hours.  The caller has a second job and would rather work through her lunch break so she can leave a half-hour early from her shift.  Her employer told her that she is not allowed to do that, and instead must take her lunch at some point during a set window of time around the middle of the day.  She asked our employment lawyers if her employer can require her to take an unpaid break in the middle of the day and stay to the end of her scheduled shift.

Gold Star Law’s employment attorneys reviewed her situation and responded as follows:

You are entitled to be paid for all hours you actually work.  That includes any time when your employer “suffers or permits” you to work.  So, if your employer knows that you are working through your lunch breaks, you are entitled to pay for that time.  If they are automatically deducting pay for time that they know you actually worked, that is a problem.

However, an employer is allowed to set the hours that an employee is required to work.  This includes start times, end times, and lunch breaks.  If you are scheduled to work from 8:00 am – 4:30 pm with a half-hour lunch, which you are required to take between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm, your employer can legally require you to work those hours and discipline you for not doing so.  Employers are not required to give employees the schedules they prefer, with a few exceptions such as religious and medical accommodations.  Working around an employee’s schedule for a second job is not an accommodation that employers are required to make.

So, to answer your question, yes, an employer can require that you work, and do not work, certain hours, including start times, end times, and lunch breaks.  However, an employer cannot deduct pay for a lunch break if it knows that you are actually working during that time.

If you have a question about paid or unpaid breaks, or any other employment law concern, call the employment law team at Gold Star Law.