Meal Break May Get More Flexible
February 17, 2005 12:29 PM
Employees from every corner of the service sector workforce turned out at a public hearing on Feb. 8 to support and protest proposed regulations that could change meal period policy in the workplace.
Current labor laws require employees to take a 30-minute unpaid meal break within the first five hours of a shift. The law requires employers to pay the employee the equivalent of one hour’s wages for each day the meal period is missed, or employees can sue for lost wages up to three years later.
The new regulations aim at providing employees with more flexibility to choose when and if they want to take their meal period, defining and clarifying compliance guidelines, and drastically reducing the statute of limitations within which an employee can sue if he or she is not provided break opportunities.
Service sector workers are split on the issue, with some fearing that flexibility will allow dishonest employers to cheat workers out of their breaks, and some desiring the flexibility to waive breaks in favor of better workplace performance. Many SF State students work low-wage service sector jobs that would be affected by the proposed changes in policy.
SF State’s junior class representative, Maire Fowler, 21, is a speech and communication studies major and a member of Young Workers United. Fowler spoke at the hearing in opposition to the regulations.
“I feel that (the regulations) are a move in support of corporate interests and an attack on labor and community,” said Fowler.
Fowler said she worked for several years in a hostile food service environment where employees were intimidated into working off the clock, not paid for overtime, and were treated with “little dignity or respect.”
Labor advocacy groups such as Young Workers United regard the proposed regulations as an attempt to take the responsibility for providing meal periods out of the employer’s hands, and place it in the employee’s. Critics also claim the new “flexibility” will create loopholes for employers to avoid providing adequate breaks and make it more difficult to hold them accountable for non-compliance.
The regulations were ordered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and drafted by the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) to quell what Schwarzenegger’s office says is an overabundance of litigation surrounding vague language in the existing labor code.
Dean Fryer, spokesperson for San Francisco’s Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees the DLSE, said the regulations are simply a missing set of guidelines necessary to efficiently interpret and enforce the existing laws.
“The regulations are really about clarification,” Fryer said. “Clarification about enforcement and application … will provide a little flexibility and understanding.”
Fryer said the proposed regulations would not allow employers any leeway in providing required meal breaks.
“We will always have employers who fail to comply, but the new regulations don’t provide any more wiggle room than there was before,” said Fryer. “We still have the authority to bring down the hammer, and we will.”
Fryer said that many people who protest the regulations are misinformed about what they actually intend to do.
“People think that (the regulations) are going to take away their lunch breaks,” said Fryer, “But this has nothing to do with eliminating breaks.”
After the hearing, protesters gathered in front of the building holding brown paper lunch bags and signs reading “hands off our lunch breaks.” A protester in a suit and Schwarzenegger mask was thrown on the ground and stomped in a mock beat-down display for television cameras.
Tony Devencenzi, 23, an environmental studies graduate from SF State, opposed the proposed regulations. Devencenzi is a bartender at the Cheesecake Factory, which is currently involved in three lawsuits concerning meal period violations, according to the company’s October 2004 quarterly report.
“Current break laws are tedious and hard to implement,” said Devencenzi. “But they absolutely need to stay in place, perhaps strengthened, because large corporations like the Cheesecake Factory will take advantage.”
Whether the regulations are believed to be a good or a bad thing seems to depend on the type of work and the veracity of the employer. Agricultural workers, garment workers, truck drivers and assembly line workers said at the hearing that they are often subject to long hours without breaks and are reluctant to allow any manipulation of the current law, which they believe is straightforward enough.
But there are many who say that the strict meal period requirements are extraneous in some work environments, such as the food service industry. Most of the speakers in favor of the regulations were waiters, waitresses and bartenders who said that being forced to take breaks interrupts the rhythm of their shifts, confuses patrons, and costs them precious tips.
SF State criminal justice major Nichole Potter, 24, works at the Outback Steakhouse and says the current meal period laws need adjustment.
“I don’t agree with (the rules) because it interferes with your flow of work,” said Potter. “You’re running around like crazy and then you have to break, and it affects your tips.”
Restaurant proprietor John Ismail said he is indifferent about the proposed regulations. “It’s kind of a wash to me,” said Ismail. “I just comply with the rules, whatever they may be.”
Ismail said it does make a difference to his employees, who lose tips, and some patrons, who are upset by sporadic service when servers have to take breaks during busy hours of their shifts.
“(The patrons) think that they aren’t getting good service when their server leaves,” said Ismail.
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