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Meal Breaks in Massachusetts: Paid or Unpaid?

Massachusetts law states that no person shall be required to work for more than six hours during a day without an interval of at least thirty minutes for a meal. MGL c. 149 s. 100. The Attorney General’s office has clarified that the 30 minute meal break period can be either paid or unpaid at the discretion of the employer. This law applies to most businesses and industries, with the exception of certain specialized industries such as glass works, iron works, paper mills, print works, and dyeing works. MGLA c. 149 s. 101.
If an employer offers an unpaid 30 minute meal break period, employees cannot be required to perform any job functions during the break and must be free to leave the premises during the break. If the employee has to work during the break, or is restricted from leaving the premises, the employee must be paid for the break period. A recent decision from the Massachusetts Superior Court noted that an employer cannot deduct time from an employee’s paycheck for a meal break unless the employee is “relieved of all work duties” during the break. In that case, the employer had been deducting meal break time from employee paychecks, despite the fact that the employees (a group of security officers) were required to remain on call (and in uniform) during their meal breaks. The Superior Court held that the employees were not “relieved of all duties” during those breaks and, as a result, the employer time deductions were a violation of Massachusetts law.

Employers face penalties and significant civil liability for violations of these provisions. Pursuant to MGL c. 149 s. 100, failure to comply with the meal break law can result in a fine of $300-$600 per violation. The Attorney General’s office has indicated that every failure to provide the requisite break is a separate violation, each time it occurrs. Also, if an employer fails to pay an employee for work performed during the break period, the employer may be subject to civil liability for violation of the Massachusetts Wage Act. Under the Wage Act, an employee can obtain a private right of action to sue his employer and may be entitled to recovery of wages owed, plus attorneys’ fees and triple damages.
If you have any questions regarding employee meal breaks, or if you would like us to review your employee manual for compliance, please contact Michael P. Doherty, Andrew M. Kepple, or one of our other attorneys.