Federal Laws on Employee Breaks: The Good and Bad News

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Stephanie McCauley
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Federal Labor Law Breaks

In April, we ran an article about asphalt safety, giving some tips on how to stay safe while hazards like hot asphalt, vehicular traffic, complex machinery and heavy equipment are present. We received a comment, about federal labor law breaks, that raises issues not just on the risks of this job, but also on the complicated subject of employee breaks. Below is the comment from a.olechnowicz:

“Working as a flagger on a paving job for 10-14 hours straight without any breaks–this seems very unsafe, also flagging on freshly poured asphalt at 160 degrees in 95-100 degree outside temp—without any breaks. It becomes very difficult. Are there any OSHA guidelines covering this? Also, there is no training given on hazards of inhaling asphalt fumes.”

It is common belief that providing breaks to employees is fair; studies have also shown that breaks actually improve productivity. Also, they have found that employees who took 10- to 15-minute breaks every 2 hours accomplished more work than those who worked non-stop.

Although some of you might be aware of this reality, I bet others will find it a surprise.We bring you now our first serving of good and bad news:

Good news:

There’s actually a federal law that defines breaks. It’s the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Bad news:

FLSA does not require employers to give ANY BREAKS to their employees.

This serving is not so hot, though. A lot has been said about it both on the web and off of it.Still, not everyone is aware that employers are not mandated by federal law to give breaks to their employees.Take note that we’re talking specifically about employees above the age of 18.

Good news:

There are 22 states that have laws including provisions for work breaks.

Bad news:

Only 19 of these 22 states require a meal or rest break for employees.Only 7 of the 19 require a rest break in addition to a meal break.

These 7 states are California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. All of them require employers to provide paid rest periods.

Rest breaks or coffee breaks are paid and usually last 20 minutes or less.Meal breaks or lunch breaks are 30 minutes or longer. While they are considered unpaid, an employee must be relieved of all work duties.If they continue work while eating, the meal break would be considered paid.

Good news:

OSHA has a say on the issue of employee breaks.

Bad news:

They only give exceptions to highly hazardous jobs such as those done in nuclear plants and high-altitude steel erection jobs.

Surely this is a matter not to be taken lightly.After all, a lot of jobs out there might not be as hazardous as those done in nuclear plants and high-altitude steel erection jobs. But the fact remains that these jobs are hazardous.

Also, whether or not a job passes as hazardous in the standards of federal and state laws, no one can change the fact that employees are humans; they have physiological limitations.Come to think of it, even machines need a break; otherwise they’d end up getting damaged in no time.With humans most damages are irrevocable.

Good news:

FLSA acknowledges that some employers choose to give breaks to their employees as a “benefit”.

Bad news:

The fact remains that employers may not choose to give breaks.

The reality is simple yet bitter to swallow:Employees who work in states with no laws requiring breaks have to rely on their own employers to get this “benefit”. But this doesn’t mean that they should be at the losing end.

If you believe you deserve to have breaks in your job, you always have the choice to talk to your employer.This should go easier if you and your co-workers raise this issue together.

Now if you have breaks but you work in one of the states without a law requiring it, then your employer is voluntarily providing them.It means your employer can revoke this policy or make modifications in it at any time.

But if your employer violates break or meal provisions in the FLSA and/or state laws, you have the right to report this to your state labor department. You may also seek the help of a lawyer.

For now, we can only hope that more states pay greater attention to this complicated issue.Let’s also cross our fingers that more employers see breaks as a means to gaining higher productivity. Of course, all this comes with more hopes that we’ll have better news for employees in the future.

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