Meal breaks in retail

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Q:  I work part-time at a small retail store in a town in Massachusetts.  I work from 8:30am to about 1:00pm, Monday through Friday.  Sometimes I work until 2:00pm but that is rare.  I get a paid 15-minute break.  However, I do not get a lunch break even though I work through noon.  Others seem to be getting a meal break.  Is this lawful?  It seems unfair, to say the least. I know that a meal break is required in Massachusetts.  Are retailers not required to comply?

A: Meal breaks are required in Massachusetts, if an employee works a shift for six hours or more.  Maybe your coworkers, who are receiving the meal break, are working six or more hours.  It sounds like most of your shifts are shorter than six hours in a single work day.  If you did work six continuous hours (or more) in a single shift, a 30-minute meal break is required.  Massachusetts does not require employers to provide rest breaks or coffee breaks, either paid or unpaid.  My guess is that your employer is providing a 15-minute break so that you can grab a quick bite to eat or make a telephone call, if needed.  They are not required to do so though.  There are some states which require rest breaks, but Massachusetts is not one of them.  The meal break is typically unpaid.  An employee can choose to voluntarily work through a meal break and if the employee does, this time should be paid at their regular rate of pay.

In order for a meal break to “count” as a meal break, the employee should be free of work responsibilities and have the freedom to leave the premises.  As an example, if an employee is asked to “answer the phones” or “cover the front desk” during a lunch break, this is not an actual meal break.  This time should be compensated. Additionally, many employers offer a lunch hour, but only 30 minutes is the legal requirement.  This law applies to exempt and non-exempt employees.

The meal break law does not apply to certain industries in Massachusetts, including employers in the iron, glass, print, bleach, dye, paper and letterpress industries.  Retailers are required to comply with this law.

Employers can be liable for breaking this law.  For more information about meal breaks in Massachusetts, visit  The penalty for a violation of this law must be at least $300, but not more than $600 per violation.

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.