May 14, 2021

Employment Law

Minnesota Meal and Restroom Break Laws: What You Need to Know

Virtually all Minnesota employees are statutorily entitled to work breaks, in some instances paid and in others not.  This article will summarize Minnesota law as it concerns restroom breaks, meal breaks and medically or pregnancy necessitated breaks.

Am I Entitled to A 30-Minute Meal Break?

There is a popular misconception that all employees are entitled to one half hour meal break for an eight-hour shift. In actuality, the Minnesota Fair Labor Standards Act (“MFLA”) merely requires employees be given “sufficient time to eat a meal” during a shift of eight or more hours. Minn. Stat. § 177.254. Rest periods of less than 20 minutes in length are considered “hours worked” in determining whether the eight-hour threshold is met. Minn. R. 5200.0120, subp. 1. The statute does not define the term “sufficient.” By administrative rule, 30 minutes is “ordinarily” deemed long enough, but a shorter time may be adequate “under special conditions.” In reliance on this rule, at least one federal court judge interpreting MFLA held that breaks must be no less than 30 minutes unless the employer is able to prove that special circumstances warrant a shorter period. Frank v. Gold’n Plump Poultry, Inc., No. 04-CV-1018, 2007 WL 2780504 (D. Minn. Sept. 24, 2007). On the other hand, a state court judge declined to impose liability on an employer who gave breaks under 30 minutes, observing, “experience shows that meals can be eaten fairly quickly,” and that a meal “could conceivably be eaten in as little as 10 or 15 minutes.” Braun v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., No. 19-CO-01-9790, 2003 WL 22990114 (Minn. Dist. Ct. Nov. 3, 2003).  Despite the statute’s flexible wording, conscientious employers err on the side of safety, providing meal breaks of a full 30 minutes. It is important to note, there is no requirement that an employer pay its employees for time spent on meal break, whatever its length.  And by administrative rule, an employer may legally require that employees remain on the work premises during their meal breaks.

A bona fide meal break occurs only when an employee is completely relieved from duty.  Minn. R. 5200.0120, subp. 4.  If an employee is not completely relieved of duties, he or she must be paid for the meal break. Stated differently, any “working lunch” is eaten “on the clock.” Nothing in the law requires employees to actually take their allotted meal break, just that it be provided.  One federal court judge has opined that an employer “need not force its employees to take a meal break,” therefore permitting a practice under which an employee voluntarily leaves work early in lieu of taking a lunch break. Dinsmore v. U.S. Bank Nat. Ass’n, No. CIV. 09-2499, 2011 WL 1559407 (D. Minn. Apr. 22, 2011).  A non-exempt employee who works through lunch against an employer’s work rule limiting work to eight hours a day is legally entitled to pay for the prohibited work, at time and a half if his/her hours for the week exceed forty 40 under Federal Law, 48 under Minnesota law.  However, such an employee is subject to discipline, up to and including termination, for violating their employer’s work rule.

How Many Restroom Breaks Am I Entitled To?

Minnesota law also requires that an employee be given an “adequate” period of time to utilize a restroom for every four hours worked. Minn. Stat. § 177.253. Neither the statute nor any regulations define the word “adequate.” Any restroom break of 20 minutes or less must be paid. Fifteen minutes is the convention, although it is not set in the statute. A violation of Minnesota’s break laws is a misdemeanor offense that can be prosecuted by the Minnesota Department of Labor. 

Minnesota law only sets forth statutory minimums.  An employer may allow breaks greater in duration and frequency.  In some instances, they must.  The Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, requires employers provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities, which may under certain circumstances include frequent use of bathroom facilities.  Linebarger v. Honda of Am. Mfg., Inc., 870 F.Supp.2d 513, 521 (S.D. Ohio 2012).  In addition, Minnesota’s 2014 pregnancy accommodation law, Minn. Stat. § 181.9414, specifically lists “frequent restroom breaks” as an accommodation that must be provided, if requested by a pregnant employee on the advice of her medical provider, unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship” on the employer’s operations.  Employees whose rights are violated under the ADA or pregnancy accommodation statute may sue for damages and attorneys fees.

Do Minnesota’s Meal and Restroom Break Laws Apply to All Employees?

Certain employees, as statutorily specified, are exempt from Minnesota’s meal and restroom break laws.  The list includes taxi drivers, babysitters, seafarers, religious employees and certain agricultural workers. The most notable exception is employees employed in an administrative, sales, executive or outside sales capacity, corresponding to the “white collar” exemptions from overtime laws. It is likely this was not a result of deliberate action, but a statutory oversight. Compare Minn. Stat. § 177.123, subd. 7 (defining “employee” for purposes of the entire MFLSA, including right to overtime) and Minn. Stat. §§ 253-54 (granting employees, as so defined, specified breaks).

All Employers?

Yes.  Irrespective of size, from the smallest mom-and-pop bait shop to the largest big box retailer.

What Are My Remedies if My Employer Breaks Minnesota’s Break Laws?

If an employee is terminated or subjected to retaliation for reporting a violation of these or any other wage and hour statute, the employer may be subjected to a fine of not less than $700 and not more than $3,000. Neither of the break statutes expressly allows for a private cause of action. Bearing this in mind, a federal court ruled that an employer’s failure to provide meal or restroom breaks does not, without more, permit a claim for damages by an employee under federal or state law. Bolin v. Japs-Olson Co., No. CIV. 06-3574, 2008 WL 1699531 (D. Minn. Apr. 9, 2008). However, an employer that does comply with the restroom break law may be subject to expensive litigation if it fails to actually pay its employees for breaks of 20 minutes or less. In the Braun case, for instance, a Minnesota state court certified a class action on behalf of Wal-Mart employees who claimed, among other things, they were not paid for restroom breaks. Another judge in a case involving hotel housekeepers ruled that whether a meal break under 30 minutes is “sufficient” is a question best reserved to a jury, not dismissible as a matter of law, therefore requiring an expensive trial. Cruz v. TMI Hospitality, No. 14-cv-1128 (D. Minn. 10/14/15). Employees who prevail in such lawsuits may recover attorney fees and penalties, in addition to unpaid wages.

If you are an employee who feels you have been deprived of your rights under Minnesota’s break laws, please contact the experienced employment law team at Wanta Thome PLC.