I recently was having a discussion with a friend regarding whether meal breaks were paid or unpaid. Since my first job at a start-up in Montana, I have always worked at a minimum 8.5 hours a day. So did everyone else at the company. I always assumed that meal breaks were unpaid. It just makes common sense, because you can use that time for anything: eating, personal chores, etc.
But my friend disagreed, saying that lunch breaks were compensated periods and so one had to only work 8 hours (that included the 1/2 hour meal break).
Obviously I had to figure out what the law says about this topic. According to the DOL page, I was correct. Federal law does not provide for compensated lunch breaks: http://www.dol.gov/dol/topic/workhours/breaks.htm
Federal law does not require lunch or coffee breaks. However, when employers do offer short breaks (usually lasting about 5 to 20 minutes), federal law considers the breaks as compensable work hours that would be included in the sum of hours worked during the work week and considered in determining if overtime was worked. Unauthorized extensions of authorized work breaks need not be counted as hours worked when the employer has expressly and unambiguously communicated to the employee that the authorized break may only last for a specific length of time, that any extension of the break is contrary to the employer's rules, and any extension of the break will be punished.
Bona fide meal periods (typically lasting at least 30 minutes), serve a different purpose than coffee or snack breaks and, thus, are not work time and are not compensable.
For more information read the Title 29: Section 785.19.
Meal breaks are compensated only if you are not completely relived of your duties during the break (think of a receptionist that answers phone calls during their lunch). But if you are relieved of your job duties and you didn’t do anything related to work, then you don’t get compensated.
Although Federal law does not require lunch breaks, some States do. But none of theses States require that lunch breaks be compensated. (Typically in these States, you need to work for at least 6 hours to qualify for the mandatory 30 minute unpaid break time). Some of these States are: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, and West Virginia.
Colorado’s law does specify that:
Employees shall be permitted to fully consume a meal of choice “on the job” and be fully compensated for the “on-duty” meal period without any loss of time or compensation.
I am not 100% exactly what is meant by the above statement, but it seems to me, that you are allowed to eat and work at the same time and in that case, the time is considered to be compensated.
My Thoughts: More often than not, I work while I am taking my lunch break. Its because I am running a software build, reading up on some research, etc. But I almost always consider that time as unpaid time and hence will at a minimum work 8.5 hours a day. Its just easier that way, because apart from work, I need to spend time heating my lunch, or I am sometimes reading news, or speaking to someone or taking care of some personal errands (and when taken with the sum of other personal interruptions that occur throughout the day, I think it’s a wash).. In my opinion, it’s the ethical thing to do.
Disclaimer: I am not an attorney. Nor do I know law. This is just my opinion based on a discussion with a friend and some Googling I did.