Labor Laws in NC for Breaks: What You Should Know

We hear this question all the time. You’re working here in North Carolina, but what about a break? Do break laws in North Carolina even exist? Is your employer required to offer you a break for a meal or otherwise?

The simple answer is no, unless it is break time for nursing mothers. Of course, it’s never quite that simple. Most of North Carolina’s employment law – and the rules regarding breaks – are contained in North Carolina Law.

Do NC Break Laws Require My Employer to Offer Breaks?

According to the North Carolina Department of Labor (NCDOL), probably not! The North Carolina Wage and Hour Act does not require employers to provide breaks for workers age 16 or older.

Furthermore, the NCDOL does not interpret the Federal Labor Standards Act as requiring employers to provide mandatory rest breaks or meal breaks regardless of age. However, many employers do have policies regarding break times, meal breaks, and more. If an employer offers short breaks, federal law indicates that they must pay for them. All breaks that are 20 minutes or less you must be paid for.

If you believe your employer is violating North Carolina break law, you should contact an experienced employment law attorney. Call 1-866-900-7078 or contact us for a free and confidential case evaluation.

Working Time vs. Break Time in North Carolina Law

So, when are you on break versus working if short breaks are offered (and therefore paid) by your employer? North Carolina break laws contain no specifics, but federal law does.

Let’s say that you are at work. Your next task must wait for another task to finish, and so you are doing something other than work. In this case, you’re working and must be paid. This isn’t technically a break – though it seems like one. This is because you are waiting “predominantly for the benefit of the employer.”

For example, a nurse or a firefighter often have idle time between tasks. A nurse may be waiting for a patient to undergo scans, or a firefighter may be at their station, waiting for the next fire alarm, but they are required to be at work. Because they are required to be at work and required to be ready for that next task, they’re considered working under federal law. In some cases, these wait times will exceed 20 minutes. However, they’re not technically on a break, so it doesn’t matter.

This is not to be confused with on-call work. That falls under the purview of North Carolina Wage and Hours law.

North Carolina Law on Lunch Breaks – Are They Mandatory?

Even though there are no NC labor laws regarding lunch breaks, employers may offer them. However, those meal breaks must be longer than 20 minutes, usually at least 30 minutes in length for the employer not to pay for them. Generally, the employer cannot restrict the employee to its premises, either.

If your employer does not pay you, they cannot expect you to work. In other words, if you’re genuinely clocked out, so to speak, you should not be waiting on customers or calls or otherwise doing work. You should be fully relieved of job duties. This is not always true if you are allowed to go home but are still on call. Otherwise, if you have job duties while you are on break, you must be paid for it.

North Carolina Law on Short Rest Breaks – What Constitutes a Break?

Most employers offer short breaks to allow employees to do things that enable them to function or personal comfort. This includes restroom breaks, a break to grab or refill a water bottle, make a quick phone call, or have a snack.

These breaks generally must be 20 minutes or shorter and not interfere with the employee’s ability to work. Under federal law, your employer should pay you for these short breaks. Make sure you know your employer’s policies and follow them regarding breaks.

North Carolina Law on Smoke Breaks – Am I Entitled to One?

North Carolina does not require employers to offer breaks for employees to smoke, nor does it require employers to provide a smoking area for employees. It is, however, illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee’s lawful use of a lawful product (such as tobacco) during non-working hours.

It is the employer’s right to choose whether or not to allow smoking breaks or zones for its employees.

North Carolina Law Regarding Breaks for Shifts of 24 Hours or More

Some jobs are round-the-clock. Doctors, for instance, may have extended shifts. Note that sleeping is not considered a break. If the employee must be on duty for less than 24 hours, they are working even if they’re sleeping during some of those hours when not busy.

If the employee’s duty is for more than 24 hours, a period of no more than eight hours may be subtracted from work hours for sleep ONLY if:

  • Sleeping quarters are provided
  • The employee can get at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep

Are Nursing Mothers Entitled to Breaks?

Most likely, yes. The Affordable Care Act amended section 7 of the FLSA to include breaks for nursing mothers. Effective March 23, 2010, for up to one year after the child’s birth, the law requires most employers to give nursing mothers:

  • Reasonable break time to express breast milk, AND
  • A functional location other than a bathroom, shielded from view and protected from intrusion, that may be used to express breast milk.

Eligible employees include those who work for a covered employer or are covered on an individual basis, and any employees covered by section 7 of the FLSA (generally those entitled to overtime pay).

Employees who are not included in those groups may also be covered if they are engaged in interstate commerce. That can include making phone calls or sending letters to other states, traveling, or processing credit card transactions.

Note that employers are not required to provide paid break time, though if the employer already does, an employee can choose to use her breaks for expressing breast milk. Also, employers of fewer than 50 employees may be exempt from the break time and space requirements if such would cause “undue hardship.”

What if My NC Employer Does Not Provide Breaks?

A no-breaks policy is perfectly legal in most cases as long as that employer is following the rules. Again, labor law in North Carolina for breaks doesn’t mandate them. However, an employer that does provide breaks must adhere to federal law regarding those breaks in the absence of a North Carolina law.

If you have an employee handbook, it should outline the employer’s policy on breaks. These are policies you should follow, but so should your employer!

How Much Compensation Could I Receive if Break Laws Are Violated?

Depending on the particular facts and circumstances of your case, you could seek compensation in the form of:

  • Lost wages
  • Unpaid or denied benefits
  • Pain and suffering

If your employer were to terminate you for taking breaks even though it was in accordance with company policy, you might be the victim of wrongful termination. You should seek the help of an employment law attorney right away.

Should I Hire an Employment Law Attorney?

That’s the big question, isn’t it? Just because the company is making the policy surrounding breaks doesn’t give it the right to violate that policy. I’d suggest clarifying the policy with your supervisor first. If you’ve been docked pay for a break that company policy states should be paid, bring that to their attention and request a correction. Document all of this.

An attorney shouldn’t be used as a threat, either. That approach creates animosity where none need be. If your employer corrects your pay for the break, it’s all good. Mistakes happen. If it happens repeatedly, then that may be the sign of a problem. If your employer’s treatment of you deteriorates after you report such issues, it could also be a reason to hire an employment law attorney.

The bottom line? Once may be an accident. Two is a trend. Three may be a problem. Everyone makes mistakes, and habits are hard to break. Be patient, but don’t let someone take money out of your pocket unfairly. If you continue to have a problem, it might be time to call us.

About the Author

Noël Harlow joined the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin in 2021 and heads the firm’s employment law practice. Since becoming an attorney in 2007, she has advocated for the rights of the underrepresented and fought to level the playing field for all. Noël shares her knowledge outside of the firm and was voted 2020 Adjunct Professor of the Year by the student body at Campbell University School of Law. She now applies her skills and determination towards protecting the rights of everyday people trying to make an honest living.