Take a break, or not?

Q: I just had a simple question. If a Manager asks an Employee to take their paid break, don’t they have to take it? If yes, can I please have a copy of the law or regulation stating this. If no, can you explain to me why not. Thank you for your time.

A: When I read your question, I actually see two questions. The first part of your question is regarding an employee who refuses to comply with a manager’s request. In most cases, an employee is expected to follow the directive of a manager unless the action requested is illegal, unethical, violates a company policy or the employee simply can not complete the task. In your situation, it sounds like asking an employee to take a break at a specific time usually does not fall into one of the categories identified. Specifically, a manager needs to ensure that their request is not violating the Massachusetts Meal Break law (described in more detail below). Assuming an employee is working in an environment where a collective bargaining agreement is not present and assuming there is no violation of the Massachusett Meal Break Law, a manager can direct an employee to take a break at a specified time. The timing of breaks often has to be managed to address business and/or customer needs. Imagine if you went to your favorite restaurant to take an important client to lunch and the entire wait staff was taking breaks from noon – 1pm? Or you went to the post office to mail an important document and there was no one to wait on you during your lunch hour? If an employee refuses to follow a manager’s request, I would recommend that the manager ask the employee for a specific reason. There may be additional information that could be helpful when assessing if this employee is behaving an appropriate manner (or not).
The other part of your question is around the topic of breaks. In most Massachusetts workplaces, paid breaks are not required. This topic confuses many of my clients who often mistakenly believe both a paid morning break and a paid afternoon break are required. In most workplaces in Massachusetts, these breaks are not required. However, a 30 minute meal break is required if an employee works six hours or more in a single work day. Employees may voluntarily work through a meal break but the employee should be compensated for the time. This meal break law also requires an employer to permit the employee to leave the premises and be relieved of all work-related duties. There are some specific workplaces that have different break requirements (an example being a paper mill). For more specific information on the Massachusetts Meal Break Law, visit the Attorney General’s website at and click on Workplace Rights.

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