Home / Charli Carpenter / Breaking Points

Breaking Points


I’ve been using a local coffee bar as my office for parts of this summer when not in the coding lab for my agenda-setting project. Besides some excellent lattes and a new appreciation for white wine, my visits have yielded me a chance to observe and connect a bit with the people who work there.

Something I’ve noticed is the absence of regular shift breaks among the staff, with the exception of those who occasionally duck out for a cigarette during lulls while still keeping an eye on the counter. Thinking back to my earlier days in the service industry, I began wondering why these hardworking baristas were not automatically required to take short breaks when they were on the clock for more than seven hours. Had something changed over the years?

So I checked into the OSHA regulations and the Fair Labor Standards Act and was surprised to learn that in fact, federal law does not require employers to offer breaks of any kind to adult workers. (The standards are different for minors, which explains what has “changed” since the days when I was working in fast food and diners – I grew up. One other exception: as of just this year, the FLSA was updated to mandate breaks for breastfeeding mothers.)

Everyone else? Forget about it. States may pass laws requiring breaks, but as far as I can determine only seven have done so, not including Massachusetts. (MA does require a lunch break.) Some workers receive mandated breaks through collective bargaining agreements, but these are few and far between in the service industry. Employers may of course choose to offer breaks and many do, but this is at their discretion. Meals, snacks, coffee, even bathroom breaks can be limited by employers – the latter having been a significant issue among assembly line workers (just read this Cornell University Press study entitled Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to Urinate on Company Time).

At a place like Amherst Coffee, when employees sneak breaks I have observed it is often with the excuse of “stepping outside for a cigarette.” Indeed, although the law doesn’t provide for smoke-breaks anymore than it provides for bathroom breaks, many people (not all) seem to feel that their best chance of legitimating a five-minute break from work is to claim they need a cigarette. I have noticed a similar pattern at my workplace – it is smokers in our building who regularly step outside for air and respite.

All this has raised two questions in my mind. First, is there a connection between the lack of mandated employee breaks and smoking patterns? I don’t know about food service workers, but a study has been done among nurses that shows that those who smoke are much likelier to take (be allowed to take?) breaks than those who do not. (There are also some interesting gender dynamics at play when it comes to smoke-breaks.) What an irony if cigarette smoking, known for its ill-health effects, turns out to be the predominant means by which employees can reap the health benefits of regular, short work-day breaks. Perhaps if we want to truly address tobacco addiction in this country we also need to do something about workers’ rights to breaks in general.

Which leads to my second thought: why the heck shouldn’t we have laws mandating shift breaks in this country? It’s true that such breaks are already common in some industries. At Amherst Coffee, for example, there is an informal system in place with which the staff seem pretty happy, judging by their general enthusiasm about their jobs and the sense of family you feel at the coffeeshop. Indeed, one can imagine such an informal system might in fact work to food service employees’ benefit, since my guess is it allows them to split tips between fewer employees per shift than might be required if breaks were regularized into a one-size-fits-all system that did not account for the ebb and flow of traffic into the shop.

Still, the problem with leaving this up to employers’ discretion should be obvious – not all businesses will engage in the kind of employee-friendly practices you find at Amherst Coffee. By not treating this as a basic workers’ rights issue, we are as a nation also missing an opportunity to utilize shift breaks to promote public health more generally.

But it’s not just about regulating businesses. It’s also about creating a culture of respect for labor rights among consumers. In the restaurant business, the incessant demand for speedy service and the disincentive to split tips among additional workers per shift means there would be a minor trade-off between breaks for employees and customer service. Laws to protect employees might help disseminate a sensibility of patience among the consumer population that would make it easier for small businesses to ensure their staff are well-rested.

At any rate, all this has made me realize that I too ought to get out of my office more during the work-day. One of the downsides of academic work where you set your own schedule is that we often don’t allow ourselves breaks (or at least, not breaks that actually take us away from our computers…) I for one can’t recall the last time I stepped outside my office just for five minutes of sunshine or fresh air. But I’d sure be a lot healthier and more productive if I did.

For now, I’ll just keep relying on my friendly neighborhood baristas to make sure I don’t work too hard. And in return, I won’t begrudge them their fresh air / smoke breaks, even if it means I have to wait a little longer for my next drink. I hope many LGM readers follow suit as you frequent local businesses in your communities this summer.

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  • The cause/correlation on this one seems bit iffy. A more likely explanation is that waiters and waitresses work in an environment where smoking is a social norm and thus have little reservation adopting the practice. I doubt that mandated breaks would change this.

    One would also note that smokers are more likely to need ‘air and respite’ than other workers – they are smokers, after all. It is a side effect of addiction.

  • fourmorewars

    I was flabbergasted by this, but I live in California…I guess I never realized it was a state and not a federal requirement.

    Oh, p.s., I think someone needs to tap our first commenter on the shoulder and gently point out it’s not about the fucking cigarettes.

  • witless chum

    I’ve taken to walking around the building on my apparently-employer provided smoke break, so that’s almost healthy, right?

    We actually do have a few people in our office (weekly newspaper) who just go outside and wander around without smoking. We get one 10 minute break per four hours worked.

  • If true, this is quite disturbing. The last time I worked in the customer service industry (2003), breaks were a legal requirement, although I’m not sure if it was my state (Colorado at the time) or if it was a federal requirement.

    There is one possible silver lining, albeit one I wouldn’t trumpet too loudly, especially since I’m not at the moment a service worker and can’t speak for anyone else. It’s that because a lot of mandated (lunch) breaks I had were off the clock, so not taking them might have meant being able to leave a half-hour earlier. (Who knows, though? Maybe the day would be that much longer. In my experience, employers like to work you as hard and as long as they can without going into overtime, which on the jobs I’ve had was determined by a weekly, not daily, basis.)

  • When I was in the military, I would take smoke breaks, but I didn’t smoke. I’d just go topside and enjoy the fresh air for five or so minutes every few hours.

    My chief saw me one day and was all pissed off that I wasn’t smoking, so I told that jerkoff that I shouldn’t have to do more work than someone who needs to satisfy an unhealthy addiction. For some reason, he wasn’t that happy with my response.

    But fuck him. I still took ’em, anyway.

  • BigHank53

    I once worked with someone who kept a single cigarette in her desk. She’d take it outside and stand around with it and chat with the smokers.

    Her opinion was that if the smokers were getting half an hour off the clock every day, she should too.

    But back to Charli’s original point: in the Church of the Free Market, employees are supposed to be miserable. This provides them with incentives to work harder, achieve more, and become little Horatio Algers. Besides, it’s really fun to watch them scramble for that premium parking space reserved for the employee of the month.

  • klondike

    Great observation. I manage technical types and I’ve noticed that:

    Almost all the ones under 35 that I’ve hired in the last four years smoke.

    The smokers break together and take, imho, 5 to 10 smoke breaks per day.

    The ones who quit, find themselves isolated.

    Any behavioral formation is inherited from other employers obviously, I suspect the service industry jobs they had as teenagers and college students. We don’t care, to a point, how much or how often they take breaks. But I’ve wondered how to help them break the habit, and it may be that a frequent “break” activity that doesn’t involve smoking would do the trick.

  • mark f

    It always drove me nuts when I was young and worked in retail that the smokers would take cigarette breaks together and leave me to man the store by myself for a few minutes.

    It never occurred to me then to assert my right to just stand outside doing nothing several times a day. It doesn’t occur to me now, either, even though many people in my office still duck out for smoke breaks.

    Which isn’t to say I’m complaining about my job. I’m an hourly employee but I have no time card; it’s all pretty much on the honor system. It’s never been discussed whether I’m entitled to a certain number of 10 or 15 minute breaks (I’m expected to take a 45 minute lunch), but at the same time if I leave my desk to use the bathroom or buy a drink nobody cares or even notices.

    I know people in a unionized office environment who face a different situation, however. Their contract calls for a certain amout of “personal time” and it’s clocked on a time card and adhered to rigidly. In addition to a regular lunch break hey get a 15 minute break and five nonconsecutive minutes a day. Gotta call your kid’s school? Need to make an appointment? Take a piss? It all gets logged in as personal time. And there’s no getting around it; there are applications on the computers and phone lines that track when the employees are active.

  • bluefoot

    Back when I did part time work in the service industry, a cigarette was considered a legitimate reason to take a break, all other reasons were not. I knew many people who took up smoking while they were prep cooks, waitstaff, cashiers, etc. and quit once they got a different job. Granted, this was 20+ years ago, but perhaps things haven’t changed much.

  • Randy

    I teach a class on business law at an art school. When we cover employment issues, students are amazed at how few rights they do have as employees. They are shocked to learn that they can be required to work seven-day work weeks*, are not entitled to paid holidays, and do not have to be given two weeks notice when they are fired. Most of the basic protections that many of us have come to take for granted rest on the whims of our employers, and if they take them away, our only option is quitting.

    Love that free market.

    *Subject only to overtime pay requirements, if the employee is eligible.

  • Halloween Jack

    One of the reasons why smoking breaks seem attractive to non-smokers, I think, is that not only do you have an excuse to step away from your desk and office phone, and not only do you have to remove yourself physically away from your place of work (my workplace doesn’t allow smoking anywhere on its office campus, meaning that some people have to walk at least a block in order to pass over the magic border and light up), but also nonsmokers are unlikely to interrupt you because, you know, you’re smoking. It’s like a little exclusive open-air club, which kind of sucks if it’s raining or really cold, and businesses are increasingly unwilling to provide those “smoking shelters” because it’s a tacit endorsement of your filthy habit; they really want you on the patches or gum or e-cigs or something.

  • ThresherK

    Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to Urinate on Company Time

    This is the kind of title which will make me want to read more Cornell papers. I wonder how far down the intellectual scale a blog will have to get for half the readers to not see the wordplay.

  • Boy is belonging to a union ever nice.

    Incidentally here’s a freebie. A screenshot of the pic on this post produced with MWSnap is 19kb while the .bmp file above is 404kb. Ideally the LGM servers would be quick enough not to care, but I saw the picture load very slowly from the bottom up…

    • Thanks for the intel. I use Moodysoft Screenshot for that, but I hadn’t thought about the importance of also taking screenshots of my own photos. I’ve made the edit; hope it helps.

  • Ed Marshall

    I smoke and I always felt bad for the people who didn’t in the other cubicles. It would be break time and they all would just sit there and bullshit with each other. That’s more or less what they did all day anyway.

    I worked at a media research firm where everyone read newspapers all day looking for information that clients were interested in tracking and some of these sick bastards would get on break *and grab the newspaper*.

  • Witt

    One of the sections I liked best of Barbara Ehrenrich’s Nickel and Dimed was the one where she talked about why smoking was so appealing when working a punishing, low-wage job. It was a guaranteed few minutes that your boss couldn’t hassle you, a way of “doing something for yourself” that would give you a quick hit of happy chemicals, but more importantly, a few minutes to socialize (or be private) and feel human.

    It made this lifelong nonsmoker much more sympathetic.

  • dave

    Yet more proof that the USA is a Third World country.

  • fuyura

    I actually started smoking during my basic training in the army 40 years ago (literally; I just realised it was somewhen during July 1970). Anyway, during the various marches (eventually culminating in an all day 20 or 30 mile route march) we were given occasional 5-minutes breaks in place: you had to stay rooted in place, but could talk amongst yourselves, scratch, and “smoke ’em if you got ’em”. I started bumming smokes just to make conversation and have something to do.

  • RepubAnon

    Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations:



    PART 785_HOURS WORKED–Table of Contents

    Subpart C_Application of Principles

    Sec. 785.18 Rest.

    Rest periods of short duration, running from 5 minutes to about 20 minutes, are common in industry. They promote the efficiency of the
    employee and are customarily paid for as working time. They must be counted as hours worked. Compensable time of rest periods may not be
    offset against other working time such as compensable waiting time or on-call time. (Mitchell v. Greinetz, 235 F. 2d 621, 13 W.H. Cases 3 (C.A. 10, 1956); Ballard v. Consolidated Steel Corp., Ltd., 61 F. Supp. 996 (S.D. Cal. 1945))

    Sec. 785.19 Meal.

    (a) Bona fide meal periods. Bona fide meal periods are not worktime. Bona fide meal periods do not include coffee breaks or time for snacks.
    These are rest periods. The employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purposes of eating regular meals. Ordinarily 30 minutes or
    more is long enough for a bona fide meal period. A shorter period may be long enough under special conditions. The employee is not relieved if he
    is required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating. For example, an office employee who is required to eat at his desk or a factory worker who is required to be at his machine is working while eating. (Culkin v. Glenn L. Martin, Nebraska Co., 97 F. Supp. 661
    (D. Neb. 1951), aff’d 197 F. 2d 981 (C.A. 8, 1952), cert. denied 344 U.S. 888 (1952)

  • Pingback: Latest rest-breaks news – Is My Employer Required to Give Me Meal or Rest Breaks? | Take …()

  • This is really quite a sensitive topic… Though, I’m not much knowledgeable about the laws, I believe that mandated breaks are quite necessary. You see, it would really make it more efficient for the employees of a business they are well-rested

  • DX

    you are right. Subject only to overtime pay requirements, if the employee is eligible.

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