Required meal break for less than eight-hour shift

Length of break required for shorter shifts

Stuart Rudner
Question: We have three eight-hour shifts in our department at a hospital, each with an unpaid half-hour meal break. We also have a night shift that is 7.5 hours long. Do we have to provide a full meal break for the night shift that is less than eight hours?

Answer: Employment standards legislation in most Canadian jurisdictions — British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island — requires employers to give employees a meal break of at least 30 minutes, scheduled so no employee works more than five consecutive hours without a meal break. Exceptions to this rule exist in Newfoundland and Labrador, where employees are entitled to a one-hour break immediately following every five consecutive hours worked, and the Yukon, where employees are entitled to one half-hour meal break for every five consecutive hours of work if they work 10 hours or less on that day, or after six consecutive hours on a day where they work more than 10 hours. At the federal level, the subject of meal breaks is not addressed in the Canada Labour Code.

Some variations exist, such as in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where meal breaks may be suspended if: an accident or unforeseeable event occurs; a different meal break is agreed to pursuant to a collective agreement; or for some reason it is not reasonable for the employee to take a meal break. In Ontario, if the employer and employee agree, the mandatory 30-minute meal break may be split into two separate breaks that total at least 30 minutes in each consecutive five-hour period.

Generally, employers are not required to compensate employees for time spent on meal breaks, although in some jurisdictions employees must be paid for this time if they are required to remain at their work stations.

Since the night shift in this case is 7.5 hours long, and assuming the hospital is situated in Ontario, the hospital is required by law to either: provide these employees with a full 30-minute meal break at an interval that will not result in the employees working longer than five consecutive hours; or come to an agreement with the employees that they will be provided two separate meal breaks that together total at least 30 minutes over a five-hour work period.

While the Ontario Employment Standards Act does not require this agreement to be in writing, it is advisable this precaution be taken. If the mandatory 30-minute meal break is to be taken all at once, employers should try to provide it at the mid-point of the shift in order to maximize productivity and reduce fatigue. Similarly, if two separate meal breaks are to be provided, they should be evenly spaced for the same reasons.

For more information see:

Bonneville v. Unisource Canada, 2002 CarswellSask 472 (Sask. Q.B.).

Stuart Rudner is a partner who practices commercial litigation and employment law with Miller Thomson LLP’s Toronto office. He can be reached at (416) 595-8672 or srudner@millerthomson.com.

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