Help Wanted: Hourly issues

State law requires lunch breaks within certain hours

State law requires lunch breaks within certain hours -- even in workplaces with flexible hours. (Credit: iStock)

Carrie Mason-Draffen

Newsday columnist Carrie Mason Draffen Carrie Mason-Draffen

Mason-Draffen, a business reporter, writes a column about workplace issues.

bio | email

DEAR CARRIE: Our employees have flexible start and end times for their workdays. They can begin between 8 and 9 a.m. and end their day between 5 and 6 p.m. Their hourlong lunch break is also flexible. Most employees go to lunch between noon and 2 p.m., which puts us in compliance with labor law regarding the timing of meal breaks. But one employee periodically chooses to work for most of the day and eat lunch between 4 and 5 p.m. Could the company face any labor law violations even though the employee chooses the late break? -- Legal Late Lunch

DEAR LEGAL: I don't think you need to worry, especially since the employee wants the later meal time. The state Labor Department said it would investigate only if it receives a complaint, which seems unlikely in this case.

You rightly note that your employees are entitled to an earlier lunch break based on their schedules. Labor law says that when employees work a shift of more than six hours that begins before 11 a.m. and extends until 2 p.m., they are entitled to at least a half-hour lunch break between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. But if an employee wants to do lunch later, that seems to work, too.

DEAR CARRIE: A large retail chain hired me to work full-time, or 40 hours a week. Now the company has reduced my schedule to fewer than 30 hours a week. On another note, I assume that scheduling me for short shifts ending at midnight after the last bus leaves is harassment. I've asked the managers not to do this, but they continue. Other full-time employees going through the same thing have quit, and the store has replaced them with part-timers. I don't know if the store's motive is to cut costs or to cut full-time employees. It's certainly achieving the latter. Are my reduced hours and schedule changes legal? -- Sked Dread

DEAR SKED: Unfortunately, unless a union or individual employment contract says otherwise, employers are free to determine how many hours their employees work in a week. They can also determine how late the employees work those hours. As the New York State Labor Department points out on its website, labor law doesn't limit how early or how late adult employees work.

DEAR CARRIE: My husband works for a large corporation. He generally gets to the office at 7:30 in the morning and doesn't leave until 6 p.m. Despite the long hours, he doesn't take a lunch break. When he gets home, he does conference calls until 10 p.m., sometimes later. He is also expected to be on call 24/7. He has worked entire weekends and received just a $50 gift card as a thank-you. His constant working has ruined more holidays and weekends that I can count. Short of quitting his job, which isn't an option, does he have any legal remedies under labor laws to protect him from this unreasonable work environment? -- Work Widow

DEAR WORK: I'm afraid labor laws will offer you or him little comfort. Your husband probably falls into the executive or professional category, which means his employer can require him to work any number of hours a week without paying him for the extra time. So giving him a gift card is actually going beyond the call of duty. That said, your husband is the one who needs to set limits on his work hours. Maybe he can start small and limit conference calls to no later than 9 p.m. And he should take a lunch break. He needs to do something, or he is headed for a burnout . . . or worse.

For more on lunch breaks and state labor law, go to http://bit.ly/Q8L2T9. For more on employees who are exempt from overtime, go to http://1.usa.gov/sQRzCo.