Is covering for another employee a true meal break?

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –Boston.com

Q: I work as a Marketing Coordinator for a small but growing marketing agency in Boston.  We often have clients stop by so we have a receptionist who comes in from 10am to 3pm.  When the receptionist takes her lunch hour, I am often asked to sit at the front desk to help out with greeting visitors, answering telephones or signing for packages and deliveries.  I am happy to help out.  The problem is that the partners of the firm think this is my lunch hour.  When I head back to my desk, after covering the front desk, they ask me how my lunch was and then one partner gets testy if I head out to pick up a salad.  I don’t really feel like this is my lunch hour.  I bring work out to the reception desk and complete it while I am out there so it is not like I am goofing off.  What is your opinion?

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A:  I have plenty of opinions!  It sounds like you are a team player and are willing to cover the reception area so the receptionist can take a break.  You are right.  You should get a break too.  Covering the front desk is really not a lunch break, even if you were playing online games for that hour!  If an employee, working in Massachusetts, works six or more hours in a single shift, a 30-minute meal break is required by law.  Some industries are excluded from this law, but marketing agencies are covered by this law. An employee should be able to enjoy this break and be completed relieved of work-related tasks, and free to leave the workplace.  Employees can VOLUNTARILY work through the meal break but they should be paid for the time.  Further, voluntarily should truly mean voluntarily.  No one should be forcing an employee to work through a meal break.

One recommendation is to ask your manager if the receptionist can limit her break to 30 or even 15 minutes.  Although she may need a break from her role for a bit, she is not legally required to be given a break if she is working a five-hour shift.  You, on the other hand, are required to be given a break.  You should be able to do whatever you choose during that break, including leaving the office to buy your lunch.  Breaks are important to many of us, since they allow us to briefly “re-charge the batteries” or check personal emails, phone messages or even run a quick errand.

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Meal breaks are typically unpaid since they are not counted as hours worked.  Some employers may require an employee to take a meal break at a certain time, because of business needs.  As an example, tellers at a bank are often asked to take their meal break earlier than noon or later in the afternoon.