Can I leave early instead of taking a lunch hour?

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Q:  I work part-time hours at a retail office south of Boston. I recently began caring for my granddaughter. I am hoping to leave at 2:30pm instead of 3:00pm so that I am able to meet her at their bus stop a few days per week. I currently arrive around 9:00am. Could I ask to take my lunch hour at 2:30pm and then just leave for the day? Does the business owner owe me a lunch hour?

A: How fortunate you are to be able to spend time with your granddaughter! In Massachusetts, business owners are permitted to schedule employees to fit the needs of the business. However, most employees who work six continuous hours during a single day should be given a 30-minute meal break. The break does not need to be paid. In fact, most employers do not compensate employees for meal breaks as this time is not time worked. An employee can decide to work through a meal break, but this choice should be voluntary.

Some don’t realize that an employee taking a meal break should be free from their duties or not covering the phones while eating a sandwich. The employee should be free to leave the premises or do errands.  There are some industries that are exempt, but they are rare. Printing companies for example are exempt. Some employers offer a lunch hour but this is not a requirement.

With respect to your question, I think you would need to ask the business owner. If you worked from 9:00am to 3:00pm, you would be entitled to a lunch paid. However, he or she is not required to allow you to leave at 2:30pm. I think much of it would depend on customer traffic patterns and other schedules in the office.

For more information about meal breaks in Massachusetts, visit https://www.mass.gov/info-details/massachusetts-law-about-hours-and-conditions-of-employment

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.

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