This post is a quick primer on hours of work and eating periods.

coffee mug
Photo Credit – Lisa’s Dad

The Ontario Employment Standards Act (“ESA”) requires that employees be given a meal break of at least 30 minutes within each five consecutive work hours. The ESA builds some flexibility into this, as the employer and the employee can agree to split the 30 minutes into two eating periods (provided they total 30 minutes) in each consecutive five hour period.

Generally meal breaks are unpaid and do not count towards the employee’s total hours of work for limits on hours of work or for overtime purposes. Even if a meal break is paid, the employee must still be free from work during the break.

Other than this 30 minute meal break, employers are not legally required to provide their employees with coffee or smoke breaks. If an employer does allow employees breaks beyond the meal break, whether or not the break will count towards working time depends on if the employee is expected to stay at the workplace during the break. If they are permitted to leave then it does not count towards working time.

Many collective agreements, employment contracts or workplace policies modify this minimum standard to provide longer or additional breaks.  Employers cannot contract below the ESA minimum standards, and are contractually bound to written promises made that provide more than ESA minimums.

As is the case with entitlement to overtime which I discussed last month, several categories of employees are exempt from the rules on eating period breaks.  For example IT professionals (as defined in the ESA), those employed in the entertainment production industry, and lawyers are exempt from certain ESA standards, including eating period breaks.  The Ministry of Labour has a user friendly tool for determining which employment rules apply to which jobs.

See the Ministry of Labour’s guide on eating periods for more information or contact us if you have any questions on how to apply the ESA standards to your workplace.