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Meal & Rest Breaks: What Senior Care Providers Need To Know To Stay Compliant

May 23, 2022 | Cari Rosenberger


Federal law and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA) do not require employers to provide short rest or meal breaks. And while the vast majority of employers do provide rest and unpaid meal breaks, a growing number of states, including Maine, New York, Minnesota, Nevada and California, have implemented more specific regulations around the length of both paid rest and unpaid meal breaks.  

Failure to comply with meal and rest break legislation can lead to costly lawsuits and hefty civil money penalty settlements, depending on the state in which the penalty occurred.  

Here are a few key considerations providers need to know and best practices you can take to mitigate risk and ensure compliance with rest and meal breaks.  

How Is A Rest Break Defined? 

Commonly, employers will offer staff short breaks throughout their shift, usually lasting about 5 to 20 minutes. While federal law does not require these breaks be provided, when they are, these breaks are considered compensable work hours and should be included in the sum of hours worked during the workweek and considered in overtime calculations. 

More simply put, these breaks are short and paid.  

A small number of states have minimum paid rest period requirements that must be followed. For example, Minnesota law specifies that employees must receive a paid rest period after four (4) consecutive hours of work and that rest periods of less than 20 minutes may not be deducted from total hours worked. You can read more about specific state minimum requirements for rest breaks on the Department of Labor (DOL) website 

How Is A Meal Break Defined? 

Much like rest breaks, the definition of a meal break varies from state to state, but generally, these breaks are granted once during an eight-hour shift, unpaid and at least 30-minutes. 

Many states offer more additional guidelines in terms of the timeframes for when these breaks should be taken and how many should be granted within a workday. For example, California law requires organizations to provide an unpaid meal break of at least 30 minutes for every 5 hours worked, meaning those working a 10+ hour shift should be granted two meal breaks. California also outlines specific definitions for what qualifies as a compliant meal break, including:  

  • The employee must be relieved of all duties  
  • The employer relinquishes control over what the employee does during this time 
  • The employee is not impeded or discouraged in any way from taking a break 
  • The employers must provide a reasonable opportunity for employees to take an uninterrupted break 

Failing to comply to these standards led to $2 million in fees for one senior care organization in just one year. You can read more about legislation specific to California meal and rest breaks on here.

Other states, such as Kentucky, are less specific and simply state that employees are entitled to a “reasonable” meal break period, without offering any specific length of time.  

Additionally, many states have different rules and regulations for meal breaks based on the age of the employee (e.g. over 18 vs. under 18), industry and total hours worked.  

You can read more about state specific minimum requirements for meal break periods on the DOL website. 

Best Practices For Ensuring Compliance With Meal Breaks 

Make Sure Managers & Employees Are Aware Of Meal Break Policies 

The first step in mitigating risk and ensuring compliance with meal break regulations is to ensure your managers, supervisors and leadership understand any state mandated requirements or union collective bargaining agreements impacting paid rest or unpaid meal breaks.  

In addition, make sure your employees understand the rules around both unpaid meal and paid rest breaks. Some states, like Oregon, require employees take a meal break. And failure to do so, even when an employee makes the choice to skip that meal break, will result in your organization being considered non-compliant. As a result, you could see penalties up to $1000 per violation.  

Ensuring everyone is on the same page as to what is required will go a long way in reducing penalties.  

Require Employees To Punch In & Out For Meal Breaks 

While time & attendance systems typically offer senior care providers the option to automate the deduction of meal breaks based on the length of time worked, for many senior care providers, this isn’t the best practice.  

Particularly in states with strict regulation and penalties regarding meal breaks or organizations with specific union collective bargaining agreements, it’s essential that you have your employees punch in and out for their meal breaks. This can ensure that any compensation required for a missed meal break period is promptly paid. It also gives you a record of punches which could be referenced in the event a complaint is filed by an employee.   

Automating the deduction of meal breaks only increases the potential for an employee to go uncompensated for time owed due to a missed break.   

Many states have strict meal break duration requirements that must be met in order to be considered in compliance. For example, if a meal break is required to last at least 30 minutes, an employee punching in from break after only 27 minutes could put your organization at risk for non-compliance.  

OnShift’s time & attendance software offers a meal break feature designed to avoid these scenarios. With OnShift Time, employees can be restricted from punching back in from a break too early. For one California provider, this reduced meal break penalties by 95% in just one week.  

Document Missed Meal Breaks 

It’s important to document any missed meal breaks and the reason that meal break was missed. This can again help mitigate risk in the event legal action is taken by an employee or the Department of Labor. This documentation should go beyond punch records.  

Having employees attest to whether or not they took a full, uninterrupted meal break at the end of their shift is another way to mitigate risk and ensure employees are appropriately compensated when a meal break is missed. OnShift’s time & attendance system offers senior care providers customizable timeclock attestations that allow senior care providers to easily ask, for example, if employees received an uninterrupted meal break. Based on that answer, employees can be asked additional questions, such as whether their break lasted at least 30 minutes.  

In turn, supervisors and managers can be alerted to any potential issues regarding compliance with meal break policies based on an employee’s answer. 

While not every state has specific laws regarding meal breaks and rest periods, a growing number have pending legislation or statutes in the making to add more specific guidelines and potential penalties. Regardless of the policies in your state or those established by your union, make sure you have the technologies in place to help your organization mitigate risk and ensure compliance.  

Want to learn more about how OnShift’s mobile time & attendance software for senior care is helping providers mitigate risk and ensure compliance? Request a demo.

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About Cari Rosenberger

Cari Rosenberger is a Senior Portfolio Marketing Manager at OnShift.

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