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Shift workers must receive meal break

Q. I was just hired into a role where I was told I am eligible for paid overtime (at time and one-half) after I work 40 hours. However, no one has mentioned lunch breaks. How does this work when an employee regularly works more than 8 hours per day? Do I get a lunch break? Is it paid or unpaid? Everyone working in this office seems to eat at their desk and work through lunch.

A. Most employees in Massachusetts are covered by the state’s meal break law. Your employer must offer at least a 30-minute meal break by law if you work six or more hours in a single shift. This 30-minute meal break is unpaid. There are certain industries that don’t offer this meal break (e.g., iron works, glass works etc.), but most employers must comply.

Employees can voluntarily choose to work through a meal break, which sounds like the situation at your work location. If an employee chooses to work through his or her meal break, this time must be paid. Many employees think employers are required to offer a “lunch hour,” but this is not the case.

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Additionally, an employee must have the freedom to leave their workplace during this meal break. An employee should not be assigned other duties during this meal break, or else it really isn’t a meal break.

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For example, an employer can’t ask workers to cover the front desk or phones for other departments during their meal break. The employee should be free from all work-related responsibilities.

Employers can be liable for breaking this law, which is enforced by the Massachusetts attorney general’s office. Know your rights. The attorney general publishes an online guide to the state’s workplace laws and regulations.

Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton.