Meal breaks in Massachusetts

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Q: I am in a job, and I think I am eligible for paid overtime (at time and one-half) after I work forty hours.  I live and work in Massachusetts.  However, no one has mentioned lunch breaks.  How does this work when an employee regularly works more than 8 hours per day?  Do I get an hour lunch break?  Is it paid or unpaid?  Everyone working in this office seems to eat at their desk and work through lunch?

A: Most employees in Massachusetts are covered by a meal break law.  Your employer must offer you a 30-minute meal break by law if you work six or more hours in a single shift.  This 30-minute meal break is unpaid.  There are certain industries and types of businesses which don’t offer this meal break (e.g., iron works, glass works etc.), however most employers must comply.  Employees can choose to voluntarily work through a meal break, which sounds like the situation at your work location.  If an employee chooses to work through his or her meal break, this time must be paid.  Although you didn’t ask, “coffee” breaks or “smoke” breaks are not required in Massachusetts.

Additionally, an employee must have the freedom to leave their workplace during this meal break.  An employee should not be assigned other duties during this meal break or else it really isn’t a meal break.  For example, an employee can’t be asked to cover the front desk or phones for another department during his or her meal break.  The employee should be free from all work-related responsibilities and be able to leave the workplace.

Employers can be liable for breaking this law.  This law is enforced by the Massachusetts attorney general’s offices. For more information on workplace rights within Massachusetts, visit http://www.mass.gov/ago/docs/workplace/wage/wagehourbrochure-final.pdf.

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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