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If we are on call even during our lunch, is the employer required to pay us for our lunch break?

Friday March 1, 2013
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Dear Nancy,

I work as a psychiatric nurse in a correctional institution. We are required to have our radios with us at all times and be on call during our shift, even when we are at lunch, in case there is a medical emergency. We don't get paid for our 30-minute lunch, so we work 12 1/2 hours and get paid for 12. The correctional officers get a paid lunch, but the county employs them — the medical department is a contracted company. Since we are on call even during our lunch, is the employer required to pay us for our lunch break?


Nancy Brent replies:

Dear Laura,

The answer to your question rests in two places. The first is, of course, the contract with the correctional institution. It may well be that there is no payment for the lunch break because of the provisions of the contract concerning this issue. If such a provision exists, it should not be inconsistent with state and federal law on payment for work during lunch periods.

The second resource for an answer rests with the federal and state law that governs this issue. The federal law, the Fair Labor Standards Act basically states that if an employee is working for the employer during the meal period with duties normally assigned to the employee, it is compensable time and the employee should be paid for that time. State laws mirror the federal law.

Check with your state wage and hour division in order to determine what is required in your state. Many times the website for this branch of the government will have a frequently asked questions page that is printable, or a way to submit questions, or a phone number where questions about wages and hours worked can be asked and answered.


Nancy J. Brent, RN, MS, JD, is an attorney in private practice in Wilmette, Ill. This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as legal or any other advice. The reader is encouraged to seek the advice of an attorney or other professional when an opinion is needed.