There are federal and state (Illinois) laws small business owners need to know about rest and meal breaks for non-exempt employees- and corresponding compensation.  These laws generally address the following questions:

  • Should an employee be paid while on breaks?
  • Are employers required to offer breaks?
  • How long such breaks should be?

Federal Laws

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, rest periods of short duration, usually 20 minutes or less, are common in industry (and promote the efficiency of the employee) and are customarily paid for as working time. These short periods must be counted as hours worked.  820 ILCS 140/3.Bona fide meal periods (typically 30 minutes or more) generally are not required and need not be compensated as work time.  However, the non-exempt employees that work during their meal time must be compensated.   The compensable work may include any duties performed by an employee while eating, such as answering emails or making business phone calls.

Thus, to mitigate the employer’s litigation risks associated with its employees’ break policies, such policies must be clearly communicated to employees.  For example, compensable short breaks should be permitted to all non-exempt employees, regardless of their smocking preferences.  The employees should be required not to work during their meal breaks.  Any unauthorized breaks or unauthorized work performed during the employees’ lunch breaks are not required to be compensated.

Bathroom breaks are also required under OSHA, but are excluded from the definition of rest breaks. Be sure to clearly communicate with your employees your break policy to avoid any legal disputes due to misunderstanding of the employer’s rest break polices.  .

For a consolidated breakdown of each state’s meal and rest break laws from the Department of Labor, check out the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) website.

Illinois Laws

An Illinois employee who is to work 7½ continuous hours or more shall be provided an unpaid meal break of at least 20 minutes. The meal breaks shall be given to employees no later than 5 hours after beginning work.  Illinois does not have a law regarding breaks, thus the federal standard applies.

For Illinois employees under the age of 16, employers must provide a meal break of at least 30 minutes if the employee is scheduled to work more than 5 consecutive hours. 820 ILCS 205/4.

Should you have any questions regarding the above-mentioned issues or other business matters, please contact us today.


This article is intended to serve as a general summary of the issues outlined therein.  While this article may include general guidance, it is not intended as, nor is it a substitute for, a qualified legal advice. Your receipt of this article from Lexern Law Group, Ltd. (the “LLG”) or any of its attorneys does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and the LLG.  The opinions expressed in this articles are those of the authors of the article and does not reflect the opinion of the LLG.