April 6, 2006 — Despite receiving a cold response from the business community, a bill establishing mandatory meal and rest periods for employees was sent to the Rules Committee for further consideration during a Labor and Agriculture meeting held Thursday on St. Croix.
According to the bill, employees would get a rest period of "at least 15 minutes" after every four hours worked, if such breaks are not included in the employee's collective bargaining agreement. "An employer who violates an employee's right to a rest period shall pay the employee 30 minutes' worth of pay for each rest period that was missed during the workday," the bill said.
Mandatory meal breaks of at least 30 minutes would also be given to employees, unless alternative meal breaks are included in a contract between the employer and employee or come as part of a collective bargaining agreement.
The bill did not say whether the breaks apply to both public- and private-sector employees.
Attorney Adriane Dudley, representing the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce and the Virgin Islands Hotel Association, said that while the bill might be beneficial to employees, it would also place employers "at harm," forcing businesses to reduce their staff, cut back hours, and limit full-time job opportunities.
"In restaurants typically patronized by tourists, this could cause chaos during the high-volume time for business," she said. "And because the bill doesn't distinguish between small and large businesses, you run the risk of not having anyone working at all, or having at least one person on break per shift. This would force employers to shut down, cut back, or something in between."
To safeguard against the possibility of employers cutting back hours, labor leader Tito Morales suggested the bill also mandate that businesses "should have a guaranteed 40-hour work week which would provide for meal and break periods during a mandatory work day of eight hours."
Dudley said the Legislature might not have the authority to mandate work hours and added that it was "painful" to "watch senators respond to just one side of the issue" and not consider the "clear antibusiness message" the bill would send to employers.
Glen Smith, head of labor relations at the Labor Department, added to Dudley's comments by saying that he does not receive many complaints from employees about not receiving breaks. "Under the local Fair Labor Standards Act, an employer must give their employees a five-to-20-minute break, during which time they have to be paid," he explained. "An employer also cannot prevent an employee from eating while they're working, nor can they prevent them from going to the bathroom or getting a drink of water on the job. That's illegal."
Smith added that the language of the bill was ambiguous because it did not specify whether Labor would have to implement the law. "And, if we do have to administer it, then you would have to provide funding so we can hire additional staff to monitor violations when they occur," he said.
Wrapping up the meeting, Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson said the bill is designed to provide assistance to employees who are being taken advantage of.
"I've been called to certain businesses by employees, and this was the first thing thrown in my face," he said. "And there are employees who are being affected by this – many of us have even suffered from this ourselves."
Nelson, along with Sens. Norman Jn Baptiste and Celestino A. White Sr. voted in favor of the bill, while Sens. Craig W. Barshinger and Ronald E. Russell voted against it. Sens. Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion and Neville James were absent at voting time.
In other committee news, a bill to create an independent collective bargaining council to negotiate wages for unionized government employees was held for further consideration after a number of unanswered questions were raised by both senators and labor officials.
All committee members were present at Thursday's meeting, along with noncommittee member Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville.
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