Surprisingly, there are no federal laws requiring meal and/or rest breaks for more than eighty million American workers who are protected (or "covered") by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Instead, employers, and employees, are covered under, and subject to, the state law if the employee lives in one of the few states with laws requiring meal and break periods.
A 2017 settlement of a class action wage and hour lawsuit in a Wisconsin federal court serves as an important reminder that failing to properly structure meal and break periods could result in significant liability. In that case, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin approved a settlement of $5.1 million (including attorneys’ fees) in a wage and hour lawsuit. The plaintiffs alleged that the employer failed to properly pay employees for 20‑minute meal periods over a three‑year period of time. www.reinhartlaw.com
So, what are the laws in Wisconsin?
Are employers required to offer breaks to employees?
If the employee is under age 18 - YES
Employees under 18 years of age may not work longer than six consecutive hours without receiving at least a 30-minute duty free meal period. Breaks of shorter duration are not required, but – of course – may be offered.
If the employee is age 18 or older - NO
Wisconsin law does not require that employers provide brief rest periods, coffee breaks, or meal periods to adult employees, although the Department recommends that employers do so.
Employers are encouraged, but not required, to provide breaks of at least 30 minutes in duration at times reasonably close to the usual meal period. Such matters are to be determined directly between the employer and the employee.
Are breaks required to be paid?
If the break is 30 minutes or longer and the employee is off duty - NO
If the break is at least 30 consecutive minutes and the employee is completely relieved of duty and free to leave the premises, the break time does not need to be paid.
If the break is less than 30 consecutive minutes – YES
For employees of any age, if the employer provides breaks of less than 30 consecutive minutes in duration, the break time is counted as work time.
If the employee is not permitted to leave the employer's premises – YES
For breaks of any length, if an employee is not permitted to leave the employer’s premises during that time, the break must be paid.
If the employee is not completely relieved of their duties – YES
For breaks of any length, if an employee is not completely relieved of their duties, the break must be paid.
Employers must pay employees for "on duty" meal periods. An "on duty" meal period is one where the worker is not provided at least 30 consecutive minutes free from work, or where the worker is not free to leave the employer's premises.
Employers may not deduct from a worker's wages for authorized breaks of less than 30 consecutive minutes.
If you believe your employer owes you wages for previously unpaid breaks, you can file a labor standards complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
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