We’re not horses, we can’t rest on our feet

An account by Emmett J. Nolan about 'job conditioning' around the issue of breaks.

Submitted by Recomposition on July 18, 2013

On my first day of work, my manager explained to me the three options regarding breaks:

1) clock out for 30 minutes,
2) take two 10-minute breaks on the clock, or
3) take a 20-minute break on the clock.

Additionally, an hour and a half “black-out” period existed for breaks during the busy middle of the day. The actual state law is a 30-minute meal break and two 10-minute rest breaks for a work period over six hours. Not only was this buffet option of breaks illegal, but it was also a strain on the body during a 7 to 9 hour shift. This situation continued on for two years and I discovered that this system was not just limited to my department or workplace, but existed within other departments and at other locations in the company.

In a meeting with my co-workers after work during the hectic holiday season, I planned to discuss what the law was on breaks, share my reasons for why I personally needed to begin taking all my breaks, and my fear of being retaliated against if I was the only worker to take their full breaks. Frustrated at this situation, my instinct was to organize around the issue and make some demands collectively. But, my co-workers and I were able to devise a creative solution in which we asserted our right to what was already ours to begin with. The collective agreement that followed would set a precedent for us to begin taking our breaks. As a result, our working conditions greatly improved and a definite sense of empowerment was instilled within us.

Why would a worker not take their breaks? Well, the first answer is often that management doesn’t provide them. The state law clearly states that it’s management’s responsibility to provide breaks and not the workers’ burden to ask for them. However, the restaurant industry is often plagued by a passive-aggressive imposition by employers that taking breaks is selfish. As lower wage jobs reliant on tips and typically strained for hours, often workers are forced to overlook the immediate well-being of their health in order to scratch out a paycheck-to-paycheck financial (in)security. The following reasons are common in the restaurant industry and I heard them all from my co-workers. They go like this.

The Uninformed Worker, “Restaurants don’t have to give us breaks, right?” Not knowing the laws regarding breaks, the Uninformed are led to believe they aren’t owed breaks and easily go along with management’s passive-aggressive withholding of our breaks. If it weren’t for some good co-workers at my past jobs, I may have fallen into the Uninformed Worker position, too.

The Superhero, “I don’t need a break.” The Superhero also often expects co-workers to not take breaks and be superheroes, too. Often young or macho, the Superhero fails to see that work is a lifelong reality and that as a result we must respond as though it’s a marathon and not a sprint. Otherwise, without proper care, our bodies break down and when we can’t keep up we’re discarded for a younger worker. Sure, when I was fifteen and at my first job I shared the Superhero opinion. But, years later and with the accumulation of a couple ailments that ensued from manual labor jobs, working 6 hour stretches on my feet without a chance to sit down, I felt the value that breaks provided. We’re certainly not horses, we can’t rest on our feet.

The Nickel & Dimed, “I don’t want to clock out, I need the money.”When we work through our breaks and forfeit that extra time to the salaried management, our productivity increases at a disproportionate rate to our rest and wellbeing. As a result, often the boss gets ahead, sends us home early more exhausted then we would be if we took our breaks, and effectively zeros out the wage benefit of working through our breaks. I’m no stranger to the Nickel & Dimed either. It’s a real concern. Nonetheless, the outlook confuses an issue of bodily wellbeing with an economic worry. Why not a paid lunch break?

At our informal meeting, I shared my personal reasons for needing all of my breaks. My co-workers were sympathetic and shared their own stories and reasons for not taking their breaks, as well. We acknowledged two major obstacles. First, we felt uncomfortable taking all of our breaks while our co-workers kept trudging along through the day. No one wanted to let their co-workers down or seem like they were evading work. We overcame this barrier by making a pact to support and encourage everyone to take their full breaks. The effect this spoken acknowledgment and support had on each of us to decide to take our breaks can not be underestimated.

Our second obstacle involved how busy and overloaded we felt at work. We determined the true reason for us being too busy and overloaded was because management was too cheap to schedule a mid-shift worker. A mid-shifter would allow everyone to take scheduled breaks, provide back-up during busy rushes, and result in a minimal increase in labor cost. Our need for a mid-shifter was an on going issue long before we started talking about breaks. We discussed how by working through our breaks we only bolstered management’s case for not needing a mid-shifter and that if we all took our breaks the need for a mid-shift would become immediately apparent. We overcame this barrier by reaffirming our break rights under the law and committing to support anyone taking their break regardless of how busy or behind on the closing tasks we were.

In the weeks that followed, I gradually began taking each of my breaks with the full support of my co-workers. I literally felt freed, as though I had taken control of my work day. This instant improvement in my disposition and morale became apparent to both myself and co-workers. Gradually, co-workers’ hesitancy began to evaporate as they too began taking their breaks. Our informal system was so developed that when a new co-worker was hired that month, she too began to take her full breaks. It was unavoidable for workers in other departments and substitutes from other locations to notice our additional breaks, and they soon began asking us about them. Even our manager began taking all the same breaks we did!

What we achieved together was a definable job conditioning victory that improved our day-to-day lives, established a new standard for new co-workers, and inspired a feeling of empowerment and confidence that was previously absent. However, there is plenty of work left to do. Not every co-worker takes every one of their breaks every day. Support and encouragement are needed daily to maintain the practice at our workplace. If this system is to continue and survive the inevitable challenges from management, greater organization is necessary.

Over the course of the next few years, we succeeded in ending the practice of a black out period for breaks, only to have it return later, and then be ended again. Rather than looking out for our wellbeing, management continued to try to dissuade us from taking breaks by stating that it was our “prerogative” whether or not we took breaks and to say that it’s industry standard that breaks aren’t given. At other times, management was more nuanced. When employees in another department at another location began taking breaks, the manager first resisted then “researched” the issue to find the same information we did: that we weren’t being given all the breaks required by law. The manager then crafted a break schedule and took ownership of the change in policy. But, if it wasn’t for the example we set in our department or the experience those workers had while working in our department which they took to other locations, those workers would likely still not have their required breaks.

Our experience of taking action to take our breaks reveals how we can make improvements to our day-to-day life through direct communication with each other. The experience also demonstrates the potential for how we can make further improvements to our work lives through collective action.

Originally posted: July 5, 2013 at Recomposition