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Policies, breaks, and what is required

Q. I am writing to inquire about employment policies and lunch breaks. In these difficult economic times, I have found it necessary to pick up a part-time job as a way of getting by. I realize that because of the minimum number of hours I am scheduled and the fact that it is on weekend 1st shift, that a lot of benefits do not apply, however, the employee
packet I received clearly states that we are to receive a 30 minute paid lunch break and two paid 15 minute breaks. In over a year, those breaks have not happened. Like other very part-time employees, I tended not to question that, since the position is a security/receptionist and the desk is covered 24/7.

Now I find that the administration has changed the rules to where we are required to work an extra half hour per shift with no extra pay, making the lunch break "unpaid". Although I realize as a private concern, they are within their rights to do that, I have never been asked to sign anything, I have not received an updated employee packet, and I continue to get no breaks. This means I am to work an extra half hour for no reason with no pay.

What advice can you offer to show them the errors of their ways?

A: I commend you on creatively supplementing your income with a part-time job during a time of record unemployment.

I need to make an assumption that you are working in Massachusetts. In Massachusetts, there is a law requiring a meal break of at least 30 minutes for employees working more than six hours in a single calendar day. Additionally, the substitution of two fifteen minute breaks does not satisfy the law. The meal break may be unpaid (and often is unpaid) unless the employee is given work-related responsibilities during the break or is required to remain on the premises for the break. If the employee is given work-related responsibilities during the break or is required to remain on the premises, the break should be paid. A good example would be a receptionist who eats his/her lunch at the front desk while covering the telephones. An employee may voluntarily work through their meal period but should be paid for this time.

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There are certain industries that are exempt from following this law. The Attorney General of Massachusetts can grant waivers but this is a rarity. More details of this law and the industries that may be exempt can be found at www.mass.gov and clicking on Attorney General and then on Workplace Rights.

Massachusetts does not require employers to provide rest breaks. Some states do require employers to provide rest breaks.

I am not certain how many hours you work during your shift. If you work more than six hours in a single calendar day, you should be receiving at least a 30-minute unpaid break (and it sounds like you are receiving that currently). Some employers do provide paid 15- minute breaks but this paid break is not legally required and frankly I don't see a lot of employers still offering this benefit.

It is very common for employers to re-evaluate their benefits and policies and this is probably what occurred here. Sometimes companies forget to update their written orientation or benefits information to reflect current policies and practices. Or your employer may be waiting until their open enrollment period (for medical, dental and other benefits) before they issue new information about benefits and policy changes. In most cases, employers are not required to have you sign anything if there is a policy change. In fact, most companies have language in their orientation and benefits materials that says just the contrary. An example might be: "The company reserves the right to change or revise our policies or practices as business or other needs dictate."

If there is an Human Resources (HR) department, you could certainly pose the question to them in a professional and non-threatening manner. I would not be surprised though if they told you the policy is not longer in existence or perhaps only applies to employees working a full-time schedule.

Many companies are reviewing every expense and trying to survive in our economic climate. Perhaps your employer is in this situation.


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