Home / Charli Carpenter / Breaking Points

Breaking Points

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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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