Labor and Employment

Workers' Break Time isn't Completely "Free" Time

For many US employees, break periods help take a bit of the grind out of the daily grind. Just because workers are given some free time doesn't mean they're free to do anything they want during break time, though.

Chrysler Plant

In 2010, about 15 workers at Chrysler assembly plant in Detroit took their breaks. Probably like dozens of other workers, they went outside. But they weren't just enjoying some sun and fresh air.

Video showed these 15 workers drinking beer and smoking what looked to be marijuana. Officials at the plant were stunned and began an investigation almost immediately. The workers' union, the United Auto Workers Association (UAW), affirmed its stance against on-the-job drug and alcohol use.

A few days after the incident, 13 of the employees were fired from their jobs. The other two were laid off without pay for one month.

Breaks Required?

There's no federal law requiring employers to give their workers break periods or even meal breaks. Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), however, if employers decide to give their workers breaks, then:

  • For short breaks - about 30 minutes or less - the breaks must be paid by the employer. Many employers give their employees one or two 15-20 minutes breaks during the day when they're relieved of their work duties
  • For longer breaks - over 30 minutes, and usually called meal breaks - employers don't have to pay employees for those breaks so long as employees are not required to work at all during that time, including being on call

Breaks Still May Be Required, Though

Many states have laws requiring employers to give their workers short rest breaks and/or longer meal breaks. Also, a new federal law requires many employers to give their workers unpaid breaks so they may breastfeed or express breast milk.

And, regardless of any federal or state law, employees, unions and employers may agree in a collective bargaining agreement to let workers take a certain number of breaks for specified periods of time.

What Workers Can Do on Break

As a general rule, your rest and meal breaks are your time, and you're free to do whatever you like, within certain boundaries. Those boundaries may be set by your employee handbook or by the law.

For example, your break time activities may be limited by the amount of time you have. If you simply don't have to time to run an errand and make it back to work before your break time's over, your employee handbook may allow for disciplinary action against you.

Illegal is Still Illegal!

Like in the Chrysler case, your employee handbook and the law may limit what you can do. According to news reports, Chrysler's policy at the Detroit plant barred alcohol and drug use while on the job. The safety issues are obvious - workers who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs while on the factory floor pose dangers to themselves and others. Not to mention the fact that possessing and using marijuana is illegal in most states.

This raises an interesting legal problem. In Michigan and other states, medical marijuana is legal. However, even in those states, employees who uses marijuana at work or shows up at work impaired or under the influence can't hide behind that law to save their jobs. Like the Chrysler employees, they can be fired.

Most employers have policies like Chrysler's giving them the power to fire workers who break company policy or break the law while on the job.

Know the Limits

It's important for all employees to understand the boundaries of what they can and can't do during breaks. For the most part it's common sense. If it's illegal - like smoking pot or gambling - you can't do it.

Read your employee handbook or ask someone in your human resources department if you're unsure of something. A Chrysler worker who lost his job because he thought he was allowed to use doctor-prescribed marijuana at work may have saved his job by asking a few questions at work.

Ask your employer about any consequences of returning late from breaks. If you know beforehand that an errand may take longer than your allowed break, ask for permission to take some extra time and make it up after your normal shift.

In tough economic times when jobs are hard to come by, don't lose your job by abusing your break time. Remember, your employer may not be legally required to give you breaks, and abuse by some may lead to the loss of breaks for all workers.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can an employer require its employees to stay on campus for lunch breaks?
  • Do employers have to give meal or rest breaks in my state?
  • Am I entitled to longer rest breaks if I need the extra time to test my blood-sugar level and administer insulin, if necessary?
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