Help Wanted: Legality of unpaid breaks
Carrie Mason-DraffenCarrie Mason-Draffen
Mason-Draffen, a business reporter, writes a column about workplace issues.
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DEAR CARRIE: I have worked for an inventory company for 19 years. I am an hourly employee and I mainly inventory retail and grocery stores at night. Often, if the business has a stockroom, my colleagues and I will go in early and start the count there. Then, after the store closes, we move onto the sales floor. Recently, I was sent to a store 30 miles from my home. We completed the stockroom in just two hours. Since it was another three hours until the store closed, our supervisor told us to take a three-hour, unpaid break. Really? What am I supposed to do during that long stretch of time? Is this legal? I am hoping that you say "absolutely not," but I wouldn't be surprised if it is legal. -- Counting the Hours
DEAR COUNTING: It may be inconvenient, but it is legal. And if you are an hourly, or nonexempt, employee, the company doesn't have to pay you for that three-hour break. Companies have to pay nonexempt employees only for the time they work.
Your situation falls under the category of "no good deed goes unpunished." You went in early and wound up with a three-hour hole in the middle of your work day. Maybe going in early is not the best strategy after all.
DEAR CARRIE: I have been employed by the same company for eight years. I have a spotless work record and an excellent rapport with my supervisors and co-workers. In the past, when I asked for reference letters, my supervisors were happy to provide them. However, when I recently asked for a reference attesting to my "pleasant disposition and good work ethic," human resources said the company no longer provides reference letters because of legal concerns. Could this be true? If so, is it common? Do you have any suggestions? -- No Reference
DEAR NO REFERENCE: It is true. Some companies have been sued by employees who took issue with their former employers' assessment of their work.
The American Bar Association sums up many companies' stance in its "Guide to Workplace Law":
"To protect themselves from possible liability and defamation, many employers will only verify that an employee worked for them for a particular period, and will not provide an assessment of that employee's performance."
That said, one of your supervisors may be willing to write you a letter of recommendation. It won't hurt to ask. If that person balks because of time constraints, ask if you could cobble together a letter from his or her comments in your evaluation. With their permission and signature, you could be on your way.
DEAR CARRIE: I was let go from my company and didn't receive any severance or vacation pay. I was with the company for two years and had some unused vacation days. Am I eligible to receive pay for those days? If so, how would I go about getting it? Do you have any legal paperwork that I can give to my former employer? -- PTO Query
DEAR PTO: Whether you are entitled to vacation pay depends on the company's paid time off policy in effect at the time. You may not be eligible for that pay because many companies' policies state that employees forfeit their unused paid time off when they leave for any reason. So you have to do some backtracking to find out what policy was in effect when you left.
For more on the federal definition of hours worked go to http://1.usa.gov/M6EBiy
For more on state labor laws regarding paid time off go to http://bit.ly/OhVNDt