Help Wanted: Lifeguards may not always get a break

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A lifeguard can legally work without a meal A lifeguard can legally work without a meal break if he or she is the only person on duty or the sole person on duty with a particular skill, according to state labor rules, although there are exceptions. Photo Credit: iStock

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Carrie Mason-Draffen Newsday columnist Carrie Mason Draffen

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

DEAR CARRIE: My son lifeguards for a private beach association in the summer. He and five other lifeguards typically work seven hours a day but don't always get a lunch break. Is this legal? Also, during the week, when the manager wants to keep the beach open later, he schedules the guards for an extra hour. But they don't find out until they get to work. Can management require the extra hour, or should it be voluntary for those who want the extra pay? -- On Guard

DEAR ON GUARD: A lifeguard, as any other worker, could legally work without a meal break if he or she is the only person on duty or the sole person on duty with a particular skill, state regulations say. Still, management has to obtain a worker's consent before eliminating his or her meal break. Outside of those exceptions, employees who work more than six hours a day are entitled to at least a half-hour meal break.

Here is what state regulations say about eliminating meal breaks:

"In some instances where only one person is on duty or is the only one in a specific occupation, it is customary for the employee to eat on the job without being relieved. The Department of Labor will accept these special situations . . . where the employee voluntarily consents to the arrangements. However, an uninterrupted meal period must be afforded to every employee who requests this from an employer."

Surely people entrusted with saving lives should get a meal break, if only to clear their heads. Perhaps your son and the other lifeguards could push for a daily lunch break on that basis. State law doesn't mandate any other rest periods such as coffee breaks, which are typically 15 to 20 minutes. But companies can choose to grant such breaks if they want. For employees who don't get those mini rest periods, a lunch break becomes even more important.

As to your question about the extra hour, unless a union contract says otherwise, employers are free to determine what hours employees work. It's not fair and certainly not considerate to spring last-minute schedule changes repeatedly on the lifeguards, but it seems legal.

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DEAR CARRIE: I work in a retail store. If we work six hours or more, we are required to take a half-hour unpaid break. We cannot take less time. If we clock out for less than one-half hour, the entire half-hour is still deducted from our pay. Is it OK for the store to do this? -- Shortchanged?

DEAR SHORTCHANGED: If you are an hourly employee and you clock out for less than a half-hour in order to return to work, you have to be paid for any part of your lunch break that you work. If your company time clock rounds up periods of less than a half-hour, then your employer has to ensure adjustments are made at the end of the day so that all the time you work is recorded.

State law mandates at least a half-hour, uninterrupted meal break for employees who work more than six hours a day -- except for the special situations mentioned above. Companies don't have to pay for the meal time if employees do no work during that break. But if you work any part of your lunch hour and that isn't reflected on the time clock, your company may be violating federal and state record-keeping statutes and possibly minimum wage-and overtime laws.

Since your employer seems to have trouble doing the math, you should clock out for the full half-hour and use all the time. That seems like the best way to handle the problem at a math-challenged company.

For more on state law and meal breaks go to http://bit.ly /Q8L2T9. For more on what constitutes hours worked, go to http://1.usa.gov/o3pznA.

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