Monday, May 3, 2010

Let's Have Lunch?

Mondays we will be doing Wage and Hour Law compliance. That is a broad subject so we should be able to get some good discussions going. Today I want to blog about something that has bothered me for a long time. And that is the fact that the United States has no federal law that requires employees to receive a meal period. For those new to wage and hour law or perhaps are confusing federal law with state law let me recap the requirement under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Per the DOL website: Federal law does not require lunch or coffee breaks. However, when employers do offer short breaks (usually lasting about 5 to 20 minutes), federal law considers the breaks as compensable work hours that would be included in the sum of hours worked during the work week and considered in determining if overtime was worked. Unauthorized extensions of authorized work breaks need not be counted as hours worked when the employer has expressly and unambiguously communicated to the employee that the authorized break may only last for a specific length of time, that any extension of the break is contrary to the employer's rules, and any extension of the break will be punished. Bona fide meal periods (typically lasting at least 30 minutes), serve a different purpose than coffee or snack breaks and, thus, are not work time and are not compensable.

The DOL instructs how to pay it but not to actually give it. There are states that do require a meal period. Check the link for a list from the DOL’s state laws page. Less than half or 20 out of 50 states plus DC require a meal period. That means that while employees in California, Nevada, Massachusetts or Rhode Island for example are entitled to take time to eat, employees in Mississippi, Florida or Georgia must rely on the kindness or good will of their employer to eat a meal.

That is why my question today is simple: Why is there no law under the federal rules to require an employee to receive a lunch break? It’s not necessary is one argument I hear constantly. No employees would work for a company that didn’t give them a lunch. I actually had that discussion today during lunch at the International Association for Human Resource Information Management Exposition. The HR professionals all agreed to that premise. Maybe in good times when jobs are plentiful, but what about these economic times? Or in low pay jobs?

Another argument against regulating lunch is that it is such a common practice in most cases so there’s no reason to have to legislate it. But is it common practice or common myth? If you follow the DOL on their audit information they release or court cases you know that failure to pay employees when they have worked through a lunch is actually quite common. In other words employers illegally dock employees for lunch when they haven’t taken it so what makes anyone think that they are offering lunches to everyone when not required to.

I am not asking for a paid lunch. But simply require that all employees within the United States regardless of the area of the country they live in deserve and are entitled to 30 minutes to eat lunch during the course of the work day. This wouldn’t be that hard. Other industrial nations offer it. 20 states offer it. And unlike the minimum wage that is actually based on the economics of the area where the employee works eating lunch is not. I totally agree that the cost of living in Kansas may be lower than in California so each state should be free to set a higher or lower minimum wage than the other. But the need to take time to eat food during the course of an eight hour day is not decided by geographical location.

Maybe payroll professionals should rise up and start the “Let’s Have Lunch” movement to make the law universal to all employees in all states. It certainly would make our job easier if the laws were more streamline. That’s my thought for today on wage and hour law…what do you think?

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