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Still Out to Lunch? Brush Up on State Rules Regarding Rest and Meal Breaks.

August 22, 2012 

Category:  Compensation

MRSC consultants are frequently asked to provide information on the legal requirements regarding work breaks. Here are some common questions and answers:

Where in state law are the rules relating to lunch or meal periods and rest breaks?

Meal and rest break requirements are set out in chapter 49.12 RCW and WAC 296-126-092. Under these rules:

  • Employees must be allowed a meal period of at least 30 minutes that begins no less than two hours nor more than five hours from the beginning of the work shift. Meal periods are on the employer's time when the employee is required by the employer to remain on duty on the premises or at a prescribed work site in the interest of the employer.
  • No employee can be required to work more than five consecutive hours without a meal period.
  • Employees working three or more hours longer than a normal work day must be allowed at least one 30-minute meal period prior to or during the overtime period.
  • Employees must be allowed a rest period of not less than 10 minutes, on the employer's time, for each four hours of working time. Rest periods are to be scheduled as close as possible to the midpoint of the work period. No employee can be required to work more than three hours without a rest period.
  • Where the nature of the work allows employees to take intermittent rest periods equivalent to 10 minutes for each four hours worked, scheduled rest periods are not required.

Can a local government require employees to stay at the workplace site during rest periods and meal times?

Yes, however, if employers require employees to spend their rest and meal breaks while on duty on the premises, then that time must be paid by the employer. See WAC 296-126-092. A local government is not required to pay for meal periods if employees are free from any duties for their entire meal period.

Employees must be also paid during their meal period when:

  • They are required to be on-call at the worksite to be available to return to duty even if they are not in fact called back to duty.
  • They are called back to duty during their meal period even though they normally are not on call during the meal period.

An employee may remain on-call during their rest break provided that the underlying purpose of the rest break, relief from work or exertion, is not compromised. As long as an employee is free to eat, rest, make personal phone calls, engage in non-work related conversation, or otherwise attend to personal business while on call, this will satisfy Washington’s rest break requirements.

Intermittent rest breaks can be interrupted so long as employees have an opportunity to complete their break at some later point after the interruption.

May employees voluntarily give up their 30-minute meal period and work a straight 8-hour shift?

Yes, an employee may voluntarily choose to combine their meal and rest periods, or even forego a meal period, as long as their employer consents. We recommend that any such agreement be in writing and identify that the employee requests the rule variation.

The exception to the rest and meal period requirements is set out in RCW 49.12.187:

Employees of public employers may enter into collective bargaining contracts, labor/management agreements, or other mutually agreed to employment agreements that specifically vary from or supersede, in part or in total, rules adopted under this chapter regarding appropriate rest and meal periods.

For more information about breaks and meal periods, see these Department of Labor and Industries webpages:

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.


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