Employee Breaks: Law, Cases, & Consquences

Employees have a state right to take a meal break and work breaks, there are no federal codes directly related to breaks.  Break claims are based directly on state statues, or indirectly on federal regulation or codes related to civil rights.  Conflicts arise from unilateral change to policy or willful or repeated violations. Employees are favored over employers in the justice system and in the public eye. Proper policies, practice, and employee communication are the best prevention to break claims. The landscape of break cases and law may be changing regarding class actions and in highly regulated industries.

Statutes, Code, & Cases

The Minnesota Fair Labor Standards Act (Act) states that an employee working eight or more hours receive sufficient time to eat a meal. “Sufficient” time is tested by the totality of the evidence and common sense; it could be less than 30 minutes.  The trier of fact will likely rely on clock in/out data (record keeping) and testimony.

The Act further mandates adequate time, a rest period, within each four consecutive hours of work to use the restroom.The totality of the evidence is weighed and a preponderance of the evidence standard is used to determine what is adequate time to use the restroom.  An employee should be allowed to use the restroom as needed.  Not allowing an employee to use the restroom is considered by law as reprehensible and dehumanizing.


Employers and employees have the right to agree on breaks outside of the Act. The creation of a collective bargaining agreement can result in complaints to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) controlled by the National Labor Relations Act.  Judges give a NLRB decision deference and these decisions likely favor the employee.  The Parsons court found that breaks are material, substantial, or significant and employers may not unilaterally change the agreement (CBA) in regards to breaks.


Defeating “willful or repeated” conduct is key to a successful defense because it frustrates liquidate damages in state cases.  This defense should be supported by a showing that the conduct was isolated or present records to counter the claim.  Defense to federal claims will likely involve a showing that practices were not discriminatory or that accommodations to certain classes were an undue hardship on the company or fellow employees.

Consequences of Violations

Legal costs

Monetary damages/awards come in the form of: fines, compensatory damages, liquidated damages, and attorney’s fees. Fines can be as low as a couple hundred dollars but class actions bring awards of $100 million plus.  Federal courts can enforce a regulatory board order.

Incidental costs

An unfavorable case can result in low employee moral/productivity, negative publicity, poisoning the well of current and future employees all of which translate into decreased revenue.  Wal-Mart/Sam’s Club is defending several break related class actions.  In contrast Costco, a competitor of Sam’s Club, is well known for paying their employees top wages and fair treatment of employees.  Those that have the choice between the two competitors will likely spend their money with Costco, as people tend to reward good behavior and punish bad.

Further, unfair break policies may poison the well of potential employees.  For example, if Cargill is reliant on Muslim labor they are putting production at risk.  Although it is possible that Cargill has calculated their actions, especially given the low threshold in their case (discussed below).  Violation of break laws is a poor reflection on companies.  Companies should look past the present tense and look to future and unintended consequences.

Famous cases, notes, and opportunity

The U.S. Supreme court will decide a due process question in Wal-Mart v. Braun.  This case is a class action “break” case much like the Braun v. Wal-Mart class action in Minnesota.  The decision may frustrate class action status by making damages so minimal it would not be feasible for attorneys to pursue civil actions.  This decision could change the landscape of “break” cases, likely creating more civil rights based claims on the federal level.

Cargill employees filed Federal Civil Rights Act complaints with the EEOC alleging religious discrimination.  The question is if Cargill afforded reasonable accommodations to their Muslim employees’ religious beliefs.  EEOC guidelines state that if Cargill can show that these accommodations impose an undue hardship by decreasing safety, efficiency, or requiring other employees to do more that their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work then they will prevail.  Without fleshing out the particulars of this butcher case it is fair to say that Cargill is likely to prevail sans immense public pressure.

Conflict arises when there is a change of policy in writing or practice.  It is important to allow input from employees during policy changes and communicate clearly what changes are coming and when.  Repeated violations like those at Wal-Mart appear to be part of the business model and reflect poorly in the public eye. Companies must remain cognizant of the risks of violating employee break laws. Companies must ensure that they have the necessary tools, such as record keeping and explanations and examples of the law, to remain compliant. If they fail to conform to legal standards, companies need to know that their behavior may result in a collective bargaining election under Minnesota statute or even unionization of their company.

The MN Board of Pharmacy is in the process of making breaks mandatory to reduce mistakes and increase patient safety. Pharmacies may be the beginning and mandatory breaks could spread to other highly regulated industries.


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