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Rules Committee Approves Bill Mandating Meal and Rest Breaks

May 25, 2006 – A bill establishing mandatory meal and rest breaks for employees is "reasonable" and assists workers who are exploited and work for long hours without resting, senators said at a Rules Committee meeting Thursday.
However, the bill, which was introduced during a Committee on Labor and Agriculture meeting last month, has received a cold response from some community members, who have said that forcing employers to give breaks could force smaller businesses to reduce their staff, cut back hours, and limit full-time job opportunities (See "Bill Mandating Meal and Rest Breaks Receives Cold Response").
During Thursday's meeting, however, Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson introduced an amendment that, he said, would take care of such concerns by reducing the length of time required for employee breaks and allowing employers to waive the break requirements if they can prove that their business would be adversely affected.
According to the amended bill, employees would get a rest period of "at least 10 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 amendment also states that employees who are over the age of 18, are working alone in a service- or retail-oriented job, and who are given restroom breaks by their employer could be exempted from the requirement. During the meeting, Nelson said this section of the bill sets up safeguards for employers with a small work staff.
"This is like when a gas station has only one employee working at a time at the pumps," Nelson said. "It would disrupt business if that employee has to leave all the time – but they still have to have a break if they need to go the bathroom or something like that."
When asked, the Legislature's legal counsel said that all four requirements would have to be met simultaneously in order for the exemption to apply.
Nelson said that many workers in the community have not been given breaks by their employers and are forced to either forgo lunch periods or "eat their meals at their desks."
"The bill is not asking for any benefits other than a rest period," he said. "Just a break within a day – something that is appropriate and customary and consistent with various laws currently in place across the states."
While most senators said they supported the bill, Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville cautioned against imposing mandates on private-sector businesses.
"I'm wary of this legislation because we have to remember that we don't want to overburden the private sector," he said. "This is something that could really hurt small businesses, especially struggling small businesses."
Figueroa-Serville added that the effects of such a bill could include limited employment opportunities for residents and a shift in the supply and demand for small businesses. "Some establishments could even be forced to compete against each other for the dwindling employee market," he said. "That's not something that we want."
Figueroa-Serville did not vote when a motion was made to approve the bill. However, Sens. Lorraine L. Berry, Roosevelt C. David, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Louis P. Hill, Nelson, and Ronald E. Russell voted in favor of moving the bill forward.
Senators were less kind, however, when considering a bill that seeks to amend the current law which states that businesses with gross receipts less than $150,000 annually are exempt from the requirement to pay minimum wage.
The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., would remove tipped employees from this exemption, thus requiring employers to pay them minimum wage.
During Thursday's meeting, senators said the bill – which has sparked much concern within the local business community – would do more harm than good (See "Labor Committee Approves Bill Regarding Tipped Employees").
"I don't know whether the proponent of the bill realizes this or not, but tipped employees are actually making $4.30 an hour plus tips," Nelson said. "And that's going to increase now that we have approved a hike in the minimum wage for nontipped employees. Many of the workers out there will tell you that they prefer that to the regular minimum wage."
Senators unanimously voted to hold the bill in committee indefinitely.
All committee members were present during Thursday's meeting, along with noncommittee member Sen. Liston Davis.
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