Don't Fall for These 8 Myths About Meal Periods

African American man eating noodles at desk

Employers must comply with federal, state, and local rules governing meal periods. To help you understand your obligations, we address some common misconceptions.

Myth #1: Federal law requires meal periods.

Fact: No federal law requires private employers to provide meal periods. However, if employers offer them, they're subject to specific rules. Additionally, some states and local jurisdictions require meal periods. Some of these laws cover all employees but others are industry-specific or are limited to non-exempt employees or minors.

Note: While several states have meal period requirements, we cover requirements in New York and California in separate articles.

Myth #2: Under federal law, meal periods can always be unpaid.

Fact: While federal law doesn't require meal periods, there are rules pertaining to pay when they are provided (whether voluntarily or because of a state or local requirement). For the time to be unpaid under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the two following requirements must be met:

  • The period must generally be at least 30 minutes without interruption; and
  • The employee must be fully relieved of all duties for the purpose of eating a regular meal.
  • Check your state and local law for additional guidance on requirements.

Myth #3: If you require employees to eat their lunch at their desk in case a call comes in, you only have to pay employees for the time if they actually handle any calls.

Fact: If you require employees to do work, whether active or inactive, while they are eating their lunch, they aren't completely relieved of duty and they must be paid for that entire time.

Myth #4: If you have a policy that employees must notify their supervisor if they fail to take a lunch break, and an employee fails to do so, you don't have to pay the employee for the missed lunch period.

Fact: The employee must be paid for all hours worked, including the time worked during the missed meal period. You may, however, subject the employee to disciplinary action for failing to follow company policy.

Myth #5: To help prevent employees from returning late from lunch, employers can always require employees to remain on their premises during unpaid meal periods.

Fact: Under certain state laws, requiring employees to stay on premises may affect whether the meal period is paid or unpaid. Check your state law to ensure compliance.

Myth #6: It's a best practice to automatically deduct lunch periods from employees' hours.

Fact: It's a best practice to require employees to clock out and then back in for their meal periods. This can help ensure that employees are paid for missed lunch breaks and account for times when employees return from lunch late. Time records should accurately reflect that the employee took a meal period, how long the meal period lasted, and the actual hours worked. In addition, some states prohibit automatic deductions for meal periods. Check your state law to ensure compliance.

Myth #7: If you give employees who are exempt from overtime a one-hour meal period but they take a longer break without authorization, you can deduct the extended lunch from their salary.

Fact: The FLSA permits deductions from an exempt employee's salary only in very limited circumstances, and this isn't one of them. In this case, the exempt employee must still receive their full salary. However, you can subject the employee to disciplinary action for taking an unauthorized extension.

Myth #8: Missed meal periods don't need to be included when determining whether overtime pay is due.

Fact: You must include all hours worked when determining whether overtime pay is due, including the time worked during the missed meal period. For example, if an employee works their typical workweek of 40 hours and misses two 30-minute meal periods, the employee worked 41 hours and must be paid one hour of overtime.


Make sure your company is complying with federal, state, and local laws governing meal periods.

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This article was originally published as an "ADP HR Tip of the Week" which is a communication created for ADP's small business clients.