Should everyone have the right to a break during the work day?

by Chris Morran, Consumerist

Many of us have the option of taking at least one brief lunch and/or rest break during the work day (whether you take it or not is a different discussion), and lots of people believe they are legally entitled to a break for every few hours worked. But the fact is that it is perfectly legal in most states for employers to not give employees any rest during the time they are on the clock.

While federal law does require that employers pay workers for “rest periods of short duration, usually 20 minutes or less,” it doesn’t actually require that adult workers be given these rest periods.

Similarly, the Dept. of Labor says that employees “must be completely relieved from duty for the purpose of eating regular meals” but says that employers do not have to pay for “bona fide meal periods (typically 30 minutes or longer),” nor does it require that meal breaks be given to employees during the work day.

In fact, only eight states — California, Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington — have laws requiring minimum paid rest periods to most employees.

Employees in most of those states must receive a paid 10-minute rest period for each 4 hours worked. Vermont has the more vague phrasing of requiring that workers receive “reasonable opportunities” during the work day to eat and use and the bathroom.

A ninth state, Illinois, has a mandatory rest period, but only for hotel room attendants, and only those in counties with more than 3 million residents, which means Cook County, which effectively means Chicago.

All of these states — plus Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and West Virginia — have minimum required meal breaks for employees.

Most of these states specify 30 minutes as the duration, but the qualifications for when that half-hour kicks in vary from state to state. For example, in Tennessee it’s a straightforward half-hour for employees scheduled to work at least six consecutive hours, while in Washington the 30 minutes of lunch for people working at least five consecutive hours can’t be given until at least two hours after the start of a shift and must be taken within five hours of starting that shift.

Once again, the hotel room attendants of Cook County, Illinois, make out better than the rest of the employees in the Land of Lincoln. State law requires a minimum 20-minute meal break for employees scheduled to work at least 7.5 hours, but those hotel room attendants get a full 30-minute meal break in addition to two 15-minute rest periods.

This all means that more than half the states in the U.S. have no laws regarding minimum rest or meal breaks. That doesn’t mean that employers in these states are not giving breaks to employees; just that they are not legally required to do so.

That said, some businesses may be making the most of this lack of local labor laws. According a recent petition, the mother of a Buffalo Wild Wings employee says her son worked an 11-hour shift without a break, while claiming that another employee worked 15 hours without any time to take a breath.

“One employee who works in the kitchen almost passed out from exhaustion and because of the high temperatures,” reads the petition, which asks the restaurant chain to give employees at least two 10-minute breaks during each 8-hour shift.

There doesn’t seem to be an easy resolution to this issue. On one hand, federal minimum standards would certainly get rid of the current state-to-state difference, but they might also introduce a jungle of bureaucratic fine print with complicated exceptions and qualifiers.

One could argue that industries need to set their own minimum standards, which may work in industries where there is self-regulation with actual consequences for violations. But for the vast majority of businesses, it would just be a gentleman’s agreement with minimal accountability.

There is also the option that employees could vote with their feet, choosing to only work for employers that offer a minimum number of breaks. This may be feasible among a relatively closed group of skilled workers. For example, medical professionals could threaten to work elsewhere if demands are not met. But again, most U.S. workers employed by companies that offer them no rest are not always in a position to walk away from a paycheck.