Can you get paid for meal periods?

It’s often clear that time an employee spends performing his assigned tasks is time for which he should be paid. But, what about meal time? Is an employee entitled to be paid for the time he spends on his lunch break? Is meal time “compensable time”?

Compensable time is time for which an employee is entitled to receive compensation. Still, the issue remains as to what work counts as compensable time. Courts define “work” under the Fair Labor Standards Act to mean “physical or mental exertion (whether burdensome or not) controlled or required by the employer and pursued necessarily and primarily for the benefit of the employer and his business.”

However, are employees entitled to compensation for time they take to eat meals under this definition?

According to the Department of Labor, employees are only entitled to compensation for “bona fide meal periods.” These periods are lunch breaks where the employee is completely relieved of duty for the purpose of eating regular meals—the emphasis being on “completely.” So, an employee who does any work at all during her lunch break is entitled to compensation.

The Fifth Circuit, the federal circuit court that covers Texas, uses a slightly different test to determine what is a “bona fide meal period.” Instead of focusing on whether the employee is completely relieved of duty, the Fifth Circuit focuses on whether the lunch break is used primarily for the employee’s benefit. Conversely, a lunch break that is primarily used for the benefit of the employer would be required to be paid.

For example, a secretary who is required to take lunch at his desk so he can answer calls must be paid for that break. Similarly, a maintenance worker who is required to wear his radio while taking lunch so he can report to service calls when need must be paid for that break because it is not primarily for his benefit.

Usually a break of at least 30 minutes is long enough to constitute a “bona fide meal period” for which an employee is not entitled to be paid. However, in Texas, there is no law that requires employers to give their employees any lunch break at all. While a Texas employer does need to give its employee time to eat lunch, if it does so, it must pay its employees for the time if they use their lunch break primarily for the employer’s benefit.