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The holidays are winding down, and all that remains of your Christmas meal is the leftovers you took to work for lunch. As you are chewing on the sandwich made from your Christmas ham or finishing the last gingerbread cookies, it is a good time to start thinking about your company’s meal break policy.
No policy seems to cause nearly as much frustration to managers, employees and HR as the dreaded meal break policy. HR departments draft detailed policies, managers complain about having to monitor whether employees take breaks correctly, and employees are frustrated about the number of requirements for when and how they take their break. So, what exactly are the requirements for giving employees meal breaks, and how do you get employees to comply with your policy?
FEDERAL AND STATE REQUIREMENTS
According to the Department of Labor, federal law does not require meal breaks. Bona fide meal periods, which the Department of Labor defines as being at least 30 minutes, may be unpaid if offered. It is important to note that an employee should be relieved of all duty if they are granted an unpaid meal break.
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A number of states have their own meal break requirements, and the Department of Labor has a handy map showing these requirements. Meal break policies and practices have come under a lot of scrutiny in California. In April 2012, the California Supreme Court released their ruling on the much awaited Brinker decision. The decision stated that employers must provide a meal break in compliance with California regulations, but they do not need to ensure that the break is taken. There are still requirements for when a break must be taken, the length of the break and how many breaks must be offered based on length of shift, but the Brinker decision took much of the policing out of meal break practices.
When the Brinker decision was released, I was working as an HR Analyst for a chain of Northern California grocery stores. We had a thorough meal break policy and spent a lot of time running reports and auditing meal breaks. Employees who failed to take breaks in accordance with state requirements faced the possibility of a written warning or two-day suspension. In addition, the company had to pay the employee one hour of pay as a penalty for failing to ensure the break was taken. It sounds harsh, but it was an approach I heard many attorneys advocate prior to the Brinker decision.
While the disciplinary action approach helped reduce liability by showing we were ensuring employees received breaks, it was not necessarily a good system when it came to employee morale. Employees were frustrated with receiving disciplinary action due to something as seemingly trivial as a late meal break, and managers did not like having to issue write ups. On top of that, HR staff did not like all the hours they had to spend policing meal breaks. With the Brinker decision, we were able to change our approach, and instead established a system where employees used a form to notify us when they were required to work through their meal break or take a late break. In these cases we would pay the necessary penalty, but we did not have the same system of required disciplinary action. If an employee chose not to take the break provided to them, they no longer received an automatic warning.
Meal break regulations are well intentioned. Employees deserve to have a break during a full day of work. But increased regulations have put a lot of parameters on how that break is taken, which frustrates many employees who feel that such regulations are too controlling. Also, policies that involve a lot of disciplinary action can be labor intensive and often take HR and managers away from their many other responsibilities.
STRIVING FOR COMPLIANCE
It is important to establish a culture where employees feel it is OK to take their break. If managers grumble whenever an employee says, “I’m taking my break,” managers are effectively sending the message that taking a break is frowned upon. Even though a company may have a policy about breaks, an employee may feel that following that policy is not encouraged.
Managers can demonstrate that a company wants employees to take a break by taking breaks themselves, even if they are exempt and not bound by meal break regulations. In addition, make a nice break area. Provide the standards like a microwave, coffeemaker and refrigerator, but also consider adding things like a lending library, comfortable chairs, a couch, snacks or a bulletin board for employees to post information about events they are participating in. Make it a place employees look forward to using for breaks.
IN THE END…
Drafting a good policy is an important piece of the meal break puzzle, but don’t forget that it is just as important to create a workplace culture where compliance is encouraged. And because meal break practices can be such a risky area for lawsuits, get to know the requirements in your state and industry. Remember that it is a good idea to have an attorney review your company’s policy.
What are the meal break requirements in your state? In what ways have you ensured compliance with your meal break policy?