With the new year and new administration comes an opportunity to implement new employment policies and re-examine old ones. Last week, Lindquist's Nancy Anton received a handful of questions on Meal and Break Periods. Below are a few of the highlights from those questions. And remember: as always, an employer should look at both potentially applicable state and federal laws, and contact an attorney with any questions or concerns.

The Law. Minnesota has statutes on both mandatory break and meal times for non-exempt employees:

Under Minn. Stat. 177.253, an employer must allow an employee adequate time from work within each four (4) consecutive hours of work to utilize the nearest convenient restroom.

Under Minn. Stat. 177.254, there is also a mandatory meal break. An employer must permit each employee who is working for eight (8) or more consecutive hours sufficient time to eat a meal.

There are no mandatory break or meal times under federal law.

To Pay or Not to Pay. Minnesota law does not specify whether or not the break time is paid or unpaid. Generally, because these break periods are 15 minutes or less, an employer pays the employee. A 15-minute break is not required by law, although it is common practice to comply with the mandatory work breaks law in order to use the restroom. This is especially true in a manufacturing setting where an employee cannot just leave his or her post.

Minnesota’s law on mandatory meal breaks states that the meal break does not need to be paid. The statute does not specify the amount of time for the meal break; however, it is common practice to provide an employee at least a half-hour.

Although federal law does not require an employer to provide a break period for a meal, rest or to use the restroom, the Department of Labor, the federal administrative agency responsible for enforcement of federal wage and hour laws, has indicated that unless an employee is relieved from work for at least twenty (20) minutes, the employee must be paid. Therein lies the reason that most employers will pay an employee during break periods, but not during the lunch period.

Recordkeeping Responsibilities. Some employers automatically deduct the half-hour meal break from an employee’s time records. Other employers require employees to record the time off for meal and break periods. Both situations can create compliance issues in meeting the employer’s obligations to accurately record an employee’s working time for overtime purposes for its non-exempt employees.

If an automatic deduction system is in place, then the employer must be able to show that the employee was actually relieved from work during this period of time. There should be a process in place for the employee to correct the time for any days that the employee was not relieved from work.

If a time-keeping system is relied upon by an employer, an issue may arise whether or not an employee is accurately reporting the time. Issues often arise with employees who do not “clock out” immediately or with employees who “clock-in” but do not report back to their work station as required. In those cases, the employee’s records show more time worked than what is actually occurring each work week. It may only be a few minutes here or there, but those can add up, resulting in a work week with over forty (40) hours and subsequent overtime issues. Again, the best way to deal with this situation is to have a process in place, with employees and supervisors correcting inaccurate time reporting on a weekly basis.

The process may seem arduous, and oftentimes employers will want to round off such starting and quitting times to the half hour. While the Department of Labor has indicated under the de minimis doctrine that a few seconds or minutes occasionally worked that cannot be practically recorded may not need to be counted in the work week, it is ultimately the employer’s obligation to keep accurate records of time worked. Rounding is acceptable only if, over a period of time, the average results in employees getting paid for all time worked.