Minnesota, like many states, regulates work breaks by statute. There is a popular misconception that all employees are entitled to a half hour meal break during an eight-hour shift. In actuality, the Minnesota Fair Labor Standards Act (“MFLA”) merely requires employees be given “sufficient time to eat a meal” during a shift of eight or more hours. Minn. Stat. § 177.254. Rest periods of less than 20 minutes in length are considered “hours worked” in determining whether the eight hour threshold is met. Minn. R. 5200.0120. The statute does not define the term “sufficient.” By administrative regulation, 30 minutes is “ordinarily” deemed long enough, but a shorter time may be adequate “under special conditions.” In reliance on this regulation, at least one federal court judge has ruled that breaks must be no less than 30 minutes unless the employer is able to prove that extenuating circumstances warrant a shorter period. Frank v. Gold’n Plump Poultry, Inc., No. 04-1018, 9 (D. Minn. 9/24/07). Just a year later, however, a state court judge declined to impose liability on an employer who gave breaks under 30 minutes, observing, “experience shows that meals can be eaten fairly quickly,” and that a meal “could conceivably be eaten in as little as 10 or 15 minutes.” Braun v. Wal-Mart, Inc., No. 19-CO-01-9790 (Minn. Dist. Ct. 6/30/08). Consequently, despite the statute’s use of the term “sufficient,” an employer’s safest course would be to provide for meal breaks of a full 30 minutes. There is no requirement that an employer pay its employees for the mandated meal break, however, whatever its length. By regulation, a bona fide meal break occurs only when an employee is completely relieved from duty. If an employee is not completely relieved of duties, he or she must be paid for the meal break. The proverbial “working lunch” is “on the clock.” Finally, one federal court judge has opined that an employer “need not force its employees to take a meal break,” therefore permitting a practice under which an employee voluntarily leaves work early in lieu of taking a lunch break. Dinsmore v. U.S. Bank Nat’l Ass’n, No. 09-2499 (D.Minn. 4/22/11).
Minnesota law also requires that an employee be given an “adequate” period of time to utilize a restroom for every four hours worked. Minn. Stat. § 177.253. Neither the statute nor any regulations define the word “adequate.” Any restroom break of 20 minutes or less must be paid. Fifteen minutes is the convention, although it is not set in the statute. A violation of Minnesota’s break laws is amisdemeanor offense that can be prosecuted by the Minnesota Department of Labor.
“Employees” for purposes of Minnesota’s meal and restroom break laws exclude, by definition, a variety of occupations (e.g., taxi drivers, babysitters, seafarers and monks). The most notable exception is employees employed in an administrative, sales, executive or outside sales capacity, corresponding to the “white collar” exemptions from overtime laws. It is likely this was not a result of deliberate action, but a statutory oversight. Compare Minn. Stat. § 177.123, subd. 7 (defining “employee” for purposes of the entire MFLSA, including right to overtime) and Minn. Stat. §§ 253-54 (granting employees, as so defined, specified breaks).
If an employee is terminated or subjected to retaliation for reporting a violation of these or any other wage and hour statute, the employer may be subjected to a fine of not less than $700 and not more than $3,000. Neither of the break statutes expressly allows for a private cause of action. Bearing this in mind, a federal court ruled that an employer’s failure to provide meal or restroom breaks does not, without more, permit a claim for damages by an employee under federal or state law. Bolin v. Japs-Olson Co., No. 06-3574 (D.Minn. 4/9/08). However, an employer that does comply with the restroom break law may be subject to expensive litigation if it fails to actually pay its employees for breaks of 20 minutes or less. In the Braun case, for instance, a Minnesota state court certified a class action on behalf of Wal-Mart employees who claimed, among other things, they were not paid for restroom breaks. Another judge in a case involving hotel housekeepers ruled that whether a meal break under 30 minutes is “sufficient” is a question best reserved to a jury, not dismissible as a matter of law, therefore requiring an expensive trial. Cruz v. TMI Hospitality, No. 14-cv-1128 (D. Minn. 10/14/15). Employees who prevail in such lawsuits may recover attorney fees and penalties, in addition to unpaid wages. Moreover, employers found to have violated these statutes are subject to a civil penalty of $1,000 for each meal period violation, for violations that are repeated or willful.
If you are an employer seeking guidance in creating break policies or employee handbooks reflecting the same, I am available to assist you in staying in compliance with the law. If you are an employee who feels that you have been deprived of your rights under Minnesota’s break laws, give me a call and I will be glad to review your potential claim.