Fix My Job: Working Conditions

You need a break today. Whether your job involves lifting heavy loads, riding roads, or clacking keyboards, having break time – to grab a bite, hit the restroom, or just take a moment to sit and breathe – is important for your productivity at work and for your health.

Problem is, there is – incredibly – no federal law  requiring your boss to give you a break. This, despite the evidence that breaks, both to rest and to move about,increase worker productivity  and well-being (heck, even the Mayo Clinic says so !).

But perhaps you get one of those breaks-that-are-not-really-breaks, such as being expected to work right through an unpaid lunch break. This is a common practice, and everyone from Indiana poultry workers to Hollywood production assistants  are organizing to make sure that work is work and a break is a break.

What to do if you are not getting the breaks you need

First, find out your rights.

  1. What’s your state? Twenty-five states do have laws regarding breaks. There is a rundown of all these laws here.
  2. Are there special circumstances? A) Employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for workers covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. B) If you are under 16, federal and state laws limit the hours you can work. And C) under the new Affordable Care Act, if you are a nursing mother you can – in most instances – take breaks to express milk.
  3. Are you a union member? If you’re a union member with a workplace contract, read it over and see what it says about breaks. You may have the contractual right to take reasonable breaks (often a 15-minute paid break for every 4 hours worked, and a half-hour unpaid lunch). Check with your union representative.
  4. Check the employee manual. Employers often have written policies covering breaks. Get your hands on that policy and see if your boss is following company rules.

Once you have all your information, then take action.

  1. Talk to co-workers: We bet you aren’t the only one hankering for a break. Often by working and strategizing with colleagues, you’ll have more success – andstronger legal protections  – when trying to address issues within your organization.
  2. Talk to your boss: Let him or her know that it is proven that breaks are healthy and increase worker productivity. And let him or her know if you are entitled to breaks by your contract, by company policy, by state law, or by your special circumstance. If your boss won’t listen, it might be time to talk to your boss’s boss or to the company’s human resources department.
  3. Stand up for your rights. If all your internal efforts fail, and if you are certain you have the right to breaks, then there are other avenues for you to take.
    1. If your employer is violating the laws of your state, contact your state’s Department of Labor .
    2. If your employer is failing to provide adequate time to go to the bathroom, they may be in violation of federal regulations and you can file a complaint through OSHA . (See what Fix My Job on No Access to Bathrooms.)
    3. If you get an unpaid lunch break, but are being forced or pressured to work during that break, you should be receiving wages for that time. You could file a claim with the U.S. Department of Labor .

In any of these cases above, you and your co-workers could have grounds for a class-action lawsuit. In 2005, retail giant Wal-Mart had to pay $172 million in damages  for failing to provide meal breaks required under California state law. You might want to get together with some of your colleagues and see a labor lawyer.

Useful Links

Article: “10 Things You Need to Know Before You Demand Your Work Break”  at AOL Jobs

Article: “State Laws on Meal and Rest Breaks ,” from NOLO Press

Government agency: U.S. Department of Labor, “Work Hours – Breaks and Meal Periods” at



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