Although mandatory meal breaks provided by employers is a state by state issue, there is a federal law covering how breaks and lunches are handled. This is known as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This act has caused me, as an employee, a lot of harm in my career. Two main provisions under this law are that during an unpaid lunch break the employer cannot ask anything of the employee and that lunch breaks under 20 minutes long have to be paid.
I have had several jobs in my career affected by the FLSA and other similar rules. The first job was as a server for a restaurant. In this job, I often chose to skip lunches all together. It was a game. If I was placed in a desirable section (if I was covering lots of high capacity, high turnaround tables) then taking a break would vastly decrease my earning potential for the night. If I was placed in a terrible section, taking a break might free me from making relatively little money. In any case, I maximized money by being active on the floor (waiting tables) as long as possible.
Where the law hurt me was if I was in a high performing section but was hungry. There was not a legitimate mechanism for me to take a break and keep my section. I would have preferred to have a sandwich in the break room and make normal stops to my tables (customer service increases tips). The employer did not want to pay me to eat a sandwich, and I was perfectly content to give up my $3.50 per hour to work while on break, but the law stood in my way. Luckily the law is not enforced very well; I would often make trips to tables during breaks (before I was allowed to “punch back in” per the FLSA). This ensured happy customers and ensured I kept a monopoly on the tips from my own table (other servers might want a share if they were doing the work or sometimes there are thieves).
Another reason the law hurt me was because it stopped me from using a 5 minute break to remove myself from a poor performing section. The computer software, programmed per the FLSA, did not allow anyone to punch in before the required minimum time. Thanks for helping me, government.
My next job provided me 30 minute lunch breaks, but in addition to FLSA this job was subject to union rules. They mandated a “right” to a lunch period. Whereas I would prefer to give up my half hour of lunch each day to gain a release time half an hour earlier each day, this was not allowed. So guestimating about 230 work days per year, this translates into 115 hours of my free time lost due to “union” benefits. Six and a half “waking days” per year! There are a lot of better things I could be doing with my time than eating fast food on work days. Thanks a lot, union.
When unions and the government try to help employees, they end up hurting others. Not everyone values the same things at the same rate (lunch breaks, paid vacation, sick leave, health benefits, etc). To have government involved, or the unions using government muscle, creates misery for individuals who want to be free to choose their own lives.