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Whether New Zealand employees are entitled to paid rest and unpaid meal periods depends on how many hours they have worked in a day. These are fundamental entitlements that employers cannot contract out of or bypass by offering financial compensation, apart from some specific employers working in essential services or defence. However, there can be a negotiation between employers and employees about when these rest and meal breaks should take place. This article will cover what the entitlements to rest and meal periods are when they can and should take place.

What Are Entitlements to Rest and Meal Periods?

Employers have a duty to allow employees to take time away from work so that they can rest, refresh, eat food and otherwise take care of whatever they would like to do in that time. This is an important aspect of work-life balance that is protected under New Zealand employment law.

Rest periods are a minimum of 10 minutes where an employee can take a break from work, and these breaks are paid. Meal periods are a minimum of 30 minutes, unpaid, where an employee can have time to prepare and eat a meal.

The actual entitlement to rest and meal periods depends on how long an employee’s work period is. For example, if an employee works between:

  • two and four hours, they are entitled to a paid 10-minute rest break;
  • four and six hours, they are entitled to a paid 10-minute rest break and an unpaid 30-minute meal break;
  • six and 10 hours, they are entitled to two paid 10-minute rest breaks and an unpaid 30-minute meal break. This is the standard entitlement for employees working a typical full-time day; and
  • 10-12 hours, they are entitled to an unpaid 30-minute meal break as well as three paid 10-minute rest breaks.

When Should the Breaks Take Place?

As an employer, you should agree with employees about when rest and meal breaks should take place. This is often negotiated in collective agreements between employers and unions representing groups of employees. Usually, you should be able to agree when rest and meal periods should take place.

However, if you cannot agree with an employee (or a group of employees) about the timing of the breaks, the law sets out some ‘default’ times at which breaks should be taken.

For example, for a typical day for a full-time employee, the default position in New Zealand employment law is that the unpaid 30-minute meal break should be taken in the middle of the work period. This will be lunchtime for a typical employee working 9 am to 5 pm. The first unpaid 10-minute rest break should be taken halfway between the start of the day and the meal break. This is often morning tea. The second should be taken halfway between the meal break and the end of the day. This is usually afternoon tea.

There are similar default positions for employees who work part-time or unusually short or long hours.

Can Employers Provide Compensation Instead Of Rest and Meal Breaks?

As rest and meal breaks are a fundamental entitlement, there is no way in which to provide compensation in lieu of breaks. Compensating employees for working through a busy period without a break is not allowed under the law.

However, there are two uncommon exceptions for very specific employers where they:

  • must be providing a specified essential service; or
  • must be engaged in the protection of New Zealand’s national security.

Employers in essential services or defence are still encouraged to provide their employees with these breaks. If they cannot reach an agreement with employees about whether this can be arranged, an employer can provide an employee with compensation. This compensation must be reasonable and proportionate to the lack of rest or meal breaks. The employer can either pay financial compensation or allow the employee time off work at an alternative time. For instance, being able to finish early the next day or a day next week).

Key Takeaways

New Zealand employees are entitled to paid rest breaks and unpaid meal breaks in New Zealand. Specifically, paid rest breaks must be at least 10 minutes each, and meal breaks should be at least 30 minutes. The number of breaks employees are entitled to depends on how many hours they work in a given day. Employers should come to an agreement with employees about when these breaks should take place, but there are ‘default’ times in the law that will take effect when employers and employees cannot agree about specific times. If you want to know more about employment entitlements, contact LegalVision’s employment lawyers on 0800 005 570 or complete the form on this page.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the basic entitlement to rest and meal breaks?

Employers are entitled to paid rest breaks of at least 10 minutes each, and an unpaid meal break of at least 30 minutes, depending on how many hours they work in a given day. A typical full-time employee is entitled to two paid rest breaks and one unpaid meal period per day.

Can employers provide compensation instead of rest and meal breaks?

No, employers legally cannot provide compensation in the place of rest and meal breaks, unless they belong to a specific exemption for essential services and defence personnel. 

When should rest and meal breaks take place?

This should be agreed between employers and employees. However, usually, a meal break takes place in the middle of the working period (such as lunchtime for most full-time workers) and rest breaks take place mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

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