I understand that in Texas the 15 minute break is not mandatory. At my company, the employer does offer 2 paid 15 minute breaks during an 8 hour work day. However, employees have been told that during this break, they are not permitted to leave the premises. Can the employer dictate what the employees can do/where they can go during the break?
Short answer: yes. An employer can legally require that an employee remain on the premises during a paid break.
In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, an employer can legally require that an employee remain on the premises even during an unpaid meal break of 30 minutes or more.
It would be very unusual for an employer to allow workers to leave the premises during a paid break. For one thing, while employees are “on the clock” they are covered under Workers Comp insurance. Should the employee be in an accident while away from work on break, it would create legal problems. The employer must pay for the injury because the employee was injured during work time. However, the Workers Comp insurance company would likely refuse to pay for it, because the employee was off the premises, and not working.
If, heaven forbid, the employee should cause an auto accident or other liability situation, the employer could legitimately be sued…because the employee was “working” at the time.
There is no Texas break law, so the relevant statute is the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, or FLSA, the oldest and most basic federal labor law.
As you know by now, neither federal nor Texas law requires employers to give workers any lunch or coffee breaks. Most employers give breaks because they increase productivity, not because they are legally obligated to.
However, when employers do offer short breaks of 5 to 20 minutes, under federal law, these are work time that must be paid.
Bona fide meal periods (typically lasting at least 30 minutes), serve a different purpose than coffee or snack breaks and, thus, are not work time and are not compensable.
Under federal law, employers are not obligated to pay for unauthorized extensions of work breaks, if a) the extension is contrary to the employer’s work rules and b) the policy and any punishment has been clearly communicated to the employee.
To return to the question, according to the federal regulation on unpaid meal breaks, “It is not necessary that an employee be permitted to leave the premises if he is otherwise completely freed from duties during the meal period.” It is certainly not necessary that employees be permitted to leave the premises during shorter paid work breaks.
The employer also has the right to set reasonable limits on what the employee can do during his/her breaks. If the employer has established a smoke-free workplace, the employee can’t smoke, even during his or her break. Another example: at most workplaces, it wouldn’t be appropriate for an employee to wash his/her hair on break, or play loud music with offensive lyrics, even if he or she was on break.
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