Meal breaks – can I leave early instead?

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Q: I am a full-time employee.  I receive a 45-minute lunch break every day.  However, there are some days that I would like to work through my lunch break and leave early.  I know lunch breaks are required by law.  Is my employer also required to let me leave early if I work through lunch?

A: In Massachusetts, most employers are required to provide a 30-minute meal break to employees who work more than six hours in a single day.  This meal break does not have to be paid, and most often is unpaid.  The meal break has to be 30 minutes or more, so it sounds like your employer is exceeding the legal standard in Massachusetts.  Some employers offer a lunch hour but that is not a legal requirement in Massachusetts.  There are some industries that are exempt from this law (iron, glass, print, etc.).  Although waivers are rare, the Attorney General’s Office in Massachusetts can also grant waivers for some workplaces that would exempt the employer from requiring a 30-minute lunch break.

An employee can work through their meal break IF their employer agrees to this arrangement.  However, an employer may want employees to take a meal break and then return to work the final hours of their shift.  Sometimes telephone coverage, customer service issues or other business needs may necessitate coverage later in the workday. During an employee’s lunch break, the employee should be permitted to leave the work location and also be relieved of all work responsibilities.  If any employee skips their lunch break, that choice should be voluntary.

It sounds like your employer is offering a lunch break during the day.  If ok with them, you could leave early on the days that you work through your lunch break.  However, they can also require that you take lunch break and work your regular hours.

It is probably best to ask your employer if they can offer you some flexibility.  While not legally required, they may offer you some scheduling options that may work better for you.

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