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Give me a break - paid

Q. Please tell me about about employment policies and lunch breaks. 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 part-time employees, I tended not to question that, since the position is a security/receptionist and the desk is covered 24/7. Now management 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". 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 have seen situations like this, and this might be explained by supervisory staff, management, and staff not communicating. By making sure all parties understand laws and policies, and how these actually work in practice, we can try to ensure a fair and positive work environment. If we assume that all parties are working in good faith, we might think that the supervisors were unaware of the breaks you are entitled to. Management is aware of the break policy, but may have been unaware that the breaks were not being offered or taken, and they are now changing the policy as a cost cutting measure.

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I encourage employees to ask questions of their supervisors or human resources to gain understanding first. Bringing your employee benefit packet to a supervisor to review the lunch and break policy is a good step. Making accusations as an introduction to a situation doesn't typically get a positive response, so as early as possible into a situation that you feel needs clarification, ask for it.

You waited a year, which may not limit any legal remedy you might have, but you probably built up lots of aggravation you didn't need. You may have stayed quiet because you need the job, which I understand. Employees who feel asking questions puts them at risk for losing their job often avoid any interactions with supervisors or management. Employees can have a friend make an anonymous call to human resources or a manager, to get an answer they need, and let them know something is not happening as it should. It is unfortunate that this fear-driven environment can still be the case in employment situations.

People do need breaks at work. As a practical matter, it is not uncommon for employers to provide one or more 10 to 20 minute breaks during the work day. You didn't say how many hours a day you work, and it does matter. I consulted with David Conforto, of Conforto Law Group, P.C. a Boston-based boutique firm concentrating in all aspects of employment law and dedicated to the representation of employees.

Attorney Conforto explains, “Massachusetts law mandates that employees who work six hours a day are entitled to a minimum 30-minute meal break. While exceptions for certain industries exist, your position as a receptionist/security officer is not one of them. In your situation, the company is not only failing to provide you with a meal break, its also refusing to compensate you for hours that you have worked." Beyond meal breaks, there is no legal requirement under Massachusetts or federal law that requires employers to provide rest or coffee breaks. "

Employers need to be aware of these laws as they are at financial risk if found liable. Conforto continues, "You have no private right of action under the Massachusetts Wage Act when it comes to the meal break issue, but your employer may be fined from $300 to $600 per violation. You do, however, have a private right of action under the Wage Act based on your employer’s failure to pay you for the time you have worked. Where your employer is found liable, you will be entitled to mandatory treble damages, attorneys’ fees, and the costs of litigation. "

Ask about the change in policy. Explain what the situation had been and ask what they think would be the best way to deal with the past and the change proposed. Try to make your work environment better for all through constructive communications. If that won't work, there are other methods available to you - but they come with a cost.


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