This post was co-written by Attorneys Bill Parsons and Jason Knutson from Habush Habush & Rottier, S.C.
Nurses’ shifts are often fast-paced, hectic, and stressful. The workload, demands on time, and desire to provide excellent patient care sometimes make it impossible for nurses to take a meal break. Uninterrupted 30 minute meal breaks are essential for patient care and are also required by law.
Taking uninterrupted meal breaks is essential to the health and well-being of nurses. In her article “One-Hour, Off-Unit Meal Breaks”, Amanda Stefancyk discussed the many benefits to nurses who were encouraged to take their full meal breaks away from their units at Massachusetts General Hospital. The nurses there “reported feeling refreshed and less fatigued, enjoying increased teamwork and familiarity with their colleagues, and having improved time-management skills.”1
Across the country, more hospitals are studying the effects of deficient meal breaks on nurses. Occupational health nurses are sometimes involved in an effort to ensure that nurses have scheduled breaks and are allowed to take them.
Wisconsin law protects nurses and employees in other occupations from interruptions during their unpaid meal periods, helping to ensure truly restful breaks. The law requires that employers pay nurses who are not able to take a full, uninterrupted 30 minute meal period. In fact, under Wisconsin law, any meal period under 30 minutes must be paid.
Nurses who cannot leave their place of employment must also be paid for their 30 minute meal period, regardless of whether it was interrupted.
Nurses perform very important work, and they universally take pride in their vocation. A trait common to all nurses is taking care of the needs of others before their own. That selflessness does not mean that nurses are not protected by the same federal and state wage and hours laws as everyone else. Nurses must be paid for work the same as any other professional.
Frequently Asked Questions About Nurses Meal Breaks
Question: My employer does not pay me for my 30 minute meal break – is that legal?
Answer: Only if two things are true. First, that you are uninterrupted with work tasks during the meal break. That includes things like charting, or answering questions of physicians or other nurses. Second, that you are free to leave your place of employment during your break.
Question: I always have time to at least eat something in the break room, isn’t that good enough for a break?
Answer: No. If you do not have a full 30 minute uninterrupted meal break with the opportunity to leave the workplace, the law says you must be paid for this time.
Question: What’s considered an “interruption” during my meal break?
Answer: The law is not clear on this, but any work that lasts more than 5 minutes during your meal break is likely an interruption. If this happens, your employer must pay you for the full 30 minute break.
Question: Why does it matter whether I can leave the facility for my meal break?
Answer: In Wisconsin, the law says that even if your break is uninterrupted, you must be paid for this time if you cannot leave the facility. If your employer requires that you remain on the premises during your meal break, you must be paid for this time.
Question: My employer automatically deducts 30 minutes from my pay for every shift I work – is this legal?
Answer: Only if your meal break is uninterrupted and you are able to leave the facility; otherwise, your employer must pay you for this time.
Question: Does my employer have to provide me with a 30 minute meal break?
Answer: No. Your employer may elect not to provide you with a 30 minute break. But if you are given the meal break, it must be uninterrupted or you should be paid for the entire break period.
1 One‐Hour, Off‐Unit Meal Breaks, Stefancyk, Amanda L. MSN, MBA, RN; AJN, American Journal of Nursing: January 2009 – Volume 109 – Issue 1 – p 64–66; https://journals.lww.com/ajnonline/fulltext/2009/01000/one_hour,_off_unit_meal_breaks.32.aspx
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