Should You Pay Your Employees for Working During Lunch?

Beth Dean 09.27.22
Weekly Tip - working during lunch

Get the low down on how to handle pay correctly.

Should you pay your employees for working during lunch?


Easy answer! Right?

Well, no. Though the simple answer is an emphatic yes, it’s a bit more nuanced. 

The topic of lunch and compensable time can be tricky. There are many ways an employee could “accidentally” work during lunch without being paid, throwing your company out of compliance with the Department of Labor (DOL).

Lunch breaks, or the lack thereof, are scrutinized heavily by the DOL since they’re a potential source of missed pay for nonexempt employees. Many companies have an employee handbook policy that mandates lunch breaks, but sometimes that policy is ignored during busy times.

Here are 5 areas to watch out for to ensure you’re paying your employees correctly regarding lunch breaks.


Working during lunch – 5 areas for extra caution:

  1. Automatic meal deductions

Some companies will automatically deduct an hour from an employee’s timecard daily, assuming they will take lunch. The trouble is, sometimes employees get busy and have their lunches cut short or even cut altogether. The meal deduction should reflect the actual time taken off. 

  1. Meals at the desk

The temptation is too great to work when you’re eating at your desk. Even if you’re chowing down on a sandwich and perusing the latest online sales, if an email or work message pops up and you read or respond to it, you’re suddenly working again. Think of meals at the desk as continued work…with food.

  1. Offsite business lunches

Sometimes hourly-paid employees will clock out for a business lunch for which they should be paid, such as meeting with a client, attending an industry luncheon, or relocating a department meeting to a restaurant. Work done off property is still work. 

  1. Shop talk

Sometimes, an employee will eat in the company break room, and a manager or coworker will come in and ask questions about the status of a project or even ask the employee to take a client or vendor phone call. For a meal break to be a bona fide unpaid break, according to the Department of Labor, it must be at least 30 continuous minutes. A work-related interruption that cuts into this time turns it into a compensable short break.

  1. Forgetting to clock back in

Sometimes employees forget to clock back in after lunch. Even if the employee did not keep proper records, they still must be paid for the time worked. As a manager, if you see a suspiciously long lunch break, it would also be a good idea to reach out to the employee to ensure any working time doesn’t go unpaid.


What are you to do about the employee who flaunts the mandatory lunchtime policy and regularly continues working? 

First, make sure you do have a policy that’s being violated. If it’s not in writing and isn’t enforced equally to everyone, it’s not a policy. Reach out to your HR pro to make an update, then roll out the changes and get signed acknowledgments from all employees.

Second, check if this employee is exempt or nonexempt from overtime pay. If the person is exempt, you may still want to enforce your lunchbreak policy to help maintain their health and fairness among all employees.  But speaking from a compliance point of view, it‘s the nonexempt employees you’ll want to keep an especially close eye on to make sure they receive compensation for all hours worked, even if they’re supposed to be off the clock.

Third, do continue to pay them for hours worked. Employers cannot deduct unauthorized hours worked; they must be paid for that time if they worked. 

If the employee works unauthorized hours during lunch, it’s a discipline problem; not a payroll problem. Connect with your HR pro to get advisement on beginning the progressive discipline process.

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