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While rest and meal breaks are a standard feature of life in all New Zealand workplaces, it can sometimes be unclear as an employer how to manage issues with those breaks when they occur. Sometimes standard practices with rest and meal breaks do not line up with employment legal obligations. So, it is important to know what your business’ obligations are and how to manage any disputes or other issues.

This article sets out three tips for managing rest and meal breaks in your business, including: 

  • knowing your legal obligations; 
  • negotiating in good faith in the event of a dispute; and
  • remembering the health and safety implications of breaks at work.

1. Know Your Legal Obligations

As a New Zealand employer, you must ensure that you provide employees with rest and meal breaks. There are some specific exemptions to this obligation for employers that offer essential services or are part of the military. Still, you will likely be aware in any case if these apply to your business. You should certainly err on the side of offering your employees breaks. You should also get legal advice if you are not sure whether your business fits into one of the exceptions or not.

There are specific legal obligations with both rest and meal breaks that differ depending on the length of the period of work your employees are working. However, no matter the period of work, rest breaks (which must be at least 10 minutes each) must be paid breaks. Meal breaks (which must be at least 30 minutes each) can be unpaid and are typically unpaid breaks. In terms of how many rest and meal breaks employees are legally entitled to, there is a sliding scale depending on how long they are working for. 

For most employees, a standard workday will be between 6 and 10 hours (this reflects a usual full-time daily shift). Therefore, for a period of work between 6 and 10 hours, employees are entitled to: 

  • two 10 minute paid rest breaks; and
  • one 30 minute meal break (whether paid or unpaid). 

If the employee works less than 6 hours, they are only entitled to one 10 minute rest break, but if they work more than 10 hours, they will be entitled to an additional rest break. 

2. Negotiate in Good Faith When There is a Dispute Over Breaks

There is no concrete prescription for when rest and meal breaks must be taken. Employment law in New Zealand encourages employers and employees to agree on the best time to take rest and meal breaks. Sometimes this is set out in a collective agreement if there is an operative collective agreement for the particular workplace. In any case, it is always preferable for employers and employees to agree to an arrangement that works for all parties.

However, sometimes employees may want to take their breaks at times that do not suit the employer. If that is the case for your business, it is important to first negotiate with your employees in good faith. You should try to understand where they are coming from and whether there is a compromise that fits both of your aims. If either party strongly disagrees with the approach taken, they can request mediation services from the government’s dedicated Mediation Services unit. 

3. Remember the Health and Safety Implications of Breaks

Finally, remember that rest and meal breaks have an important role to play in your business’ health and safety practices. Rest and meal breaks help promote good morale and prevent your employees from suffering from fatigue. 

Particularly when your workers have physically demanding or tiring work, you have an obligation to make sure that they are getting regular breaks. This ensures that your employees are not risking harm to themselves or others, for instance, by operating heavy machinery while being tired.

Key Takeaways

Managing rest and meal breaks is a subtle but important part of being a good employer. Make sure to be across your legal obligations and what your employee’s entitlements to breaks are. You should at least be meeting your minimum obligations. Your health and safety obligations are relevant too, particularly if your employees have any dangerous work or need to operate heavy machinery. Finally, in the event of a dispute, remember to negotiate in good faith. Also be aware you may need to go to mediation if you cannot agree with employees as to when they should take breaks. If you would like more information about rest and meal breaks in New Zealand, contact LegalVision’s employment lawyers on 0800 005 570 or complete the form on this page.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do both rest and meal breaks have to be paid?

No. While you must pay for rest breaks, meal breaks can be (and usually are) unpaid. However, they both must be provided.

What is the minimum duration for rest and meal breaks?

Rest breaks must be at least 10 minutes long each. Meal breaks must be at least 30 minutes long each. This reflects that a rest break is typically a chance to have a quick break from work, whereas a meal break is intended to give employees the time to prepare and eat a meal, usually lunch. 

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