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Lunch or Other Meal Periods

Fact Sheet: Lunch or Other Meal Periods


A lunch or other meal period is an approved period of time in a nonpay and nonwork status that interrupts a basic workday or a period of overtime work for the purpose of permitting employees to eat or engage in permitted personal activities. (See also Interruptions, below.)

Employee Coverage

An agency may establish policies for meal periods for employees covered by 5 U.S.C. 6101. (This includes most white-collar and blue-collar employees--i.e., employees covered by premium pay under 5 U.S.C. 5541(2) and prevailing rate employees covered by 5 U.S.C. 5343 or 5349.)


The law does not provide employees with an explicit entitlement to a meal period. Each agency has the authority to establish its own requirements for meal periods. An agency may require or permit unpaid meal periods during overtime hours, and the policy may be different from the one for the basic workweek. For example, an agency could permit employees to work 8 overtime hours on a Saturday or Sunday without any requirement for a meal period. In exceptional circumstances, an agency may permit employees to eat their meals while working.


In most circumstances, an agency is prohibited from scheduling a break in working hours of more than 1 hour during a basic workday. (See 5 U.S.C. 6101(a)(3)(F).) This limitation applies to lunch and other meal periods. An agency may permit or require shorter meal periods.

A basic workday is usually 8 hours, but the basic work requirement may be longer for certain days under alternative work schedules (i.e., flexible or compressed work schedules) authorized by subchapter II of chapter 61 of title 5, United States Code. The normal 1-hour meal period limitation does not apply if an agency permits an employee who works under a flexible work schedule to elect to take a longer unpaid meal period.

Combination With Rest Periods Prohibited

An agency may not extend a regularly scheduled lunch break by permitting an employee to take an authorized rest period (with pay) prior to or immediately following lunch, since a rest period is considered part of the employee's compensable basic workday. The lunch period may be extended only under the authority of 5 U.S.C. 6101(a)(3)(F). (See Comptroller General opinion B-190011, December 30, 1977.)


Unpaid meal periods must provide bona fide breaks in the workday. If an employee is not excused from job duties, or if he or she is recalled to job duties, the employee is entitled to pay for compensable work, including work that is not de minimis in nature. Note that there is no authority under title 5, United States Code, or the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to compensate employees for being placed on-call or being required to carry a pager or cell phone. OPM rules for crediting fractional hours of work for employees who are exempt from the FLSA are found in 5 CFR 550.112(a)(2). Parallel rules for FLSA nonexempt employees are found in 5 CFR 551.521(b)).

Restricted Areas

An agency may restrict employees to a limited area (such as a secure Government building or military installation) while in an on-call status during a meal period without creating an entitlement to pay for the meal period. (See 47 Comp. Gen. 311 (1967) and 62 Comp. Gen. 447 (1983).) See the exceptions below for certain firefighters and law enforcement officers.

Firefighters and Law Enforcement Officers

Meal periods during 24-hour duty shifts are compensable hours of work for firefighters paid under 5 CFR part 550, subpart M. (See 5 CFR 550.112(m)(4) and 551.432(f).)

On-duty meal periods are hours of work for FLSA nonexempt employees engaged in law enforcement activities who receive annual premium pay for administratively uncontrollable overtime (AUO) work under 5 U.S.C. 5545(c)(2). Bona fide off-duty meal periods during which such employees are completely relieved from duty are not hours of work for FLSA purposes. (See 5 CFR 551.411(c) and 551.541(b). Compare to Department of Labor FLSA regulations at 29 CFR 553.223(b).)

An AUO pay recipient generally has considerable discretion to recognize, without supervision, circumstances which require the employee to remain on duty. (See 5 CFR 550.151 and 550.153.) Thus, in appropriate circumstances and subject to any agency policies, an AUO pay recipient may determine it is necessary to work during a period that was scheduled as an off-duty meal period, resulting in the employee being in on-duty status and the time being credited as irregular overtime hours of work in applying the AUO provisions.

Bona fide off-duty meal periods are not actual hours of work for criminal investigators who receive law enforcement availability pay under 5 U.S.C. 5545a or for other FLSA-exempt law enforcement officers. An availability pay recipient may perform work during a period scheduled as an off-duty meal period without supervisory preapproval, if circumstances require the work to meet agency needs, subject to agency policies and procedures. (See 5 CFR 550.182(c).) Such work would be unscheduled duty compensated by availability pay.

Part-Time Employees

Agencies should establish policies stating whether meal periods will be required or permitted when part-time employees or employees who work under flexible work schedules have basic workdays that are less than 8 hours long.

Agency Flexibility

When establishing or modifying policies for meal periods, an agency typically considers factors such as--

  • provisions in any applicable negotiated agreement;
  • the availability, convenience, and distance of eating establishments;
  • whether employees must be present at work to fulfill agency work requirements (e.g., guards who cannot be excused);
  • whether work must be performed on weekends, during overtime hours, or at night, etc.


  • 5 U.S.C. 6101(a)(3)(F)
  • 5 CFR 550.112(m); 551.411(c); 551.432(c), (e), and (f); 551.541(b): 610.101; and 610.121(a)(6)
  • Comptroller General opinions 47 Comp. Gen. 311 (1967); B-179810, April 9, 1976; B-190011, December 30, 1977; 62 Comp. Gen. 447 (1983).

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