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BusinessColumnistsCarrie Mason-Draffen

Nurses forced to work through lunch can demand a break

Nurses, or anyone who working at least six

Nurses, or anyone who working at least six hours a day, is entitled to demand a lunch break, even if the schedule shows no break, under New York labor law. Photo Credit: Fotolia

DEAR CARRIE: I have a question about not being compensated for working through lunch. I work in an ambulatory surgery center where the nursing staff doesn't have a lunch hour because the schedule doesn't allow time for a sit-down lunch period.

We work through the meal hour, yet our employer doesn't pay us for that extra work. The other staff members get paid for their full eight hours despite the numerous, non-meal breaks they take, which add up to about an hour of that time each day.

So in essence they are paid for those breaks. Shouldn't we, therefore, be paid for skipping lunch? -- Hard to Swallow

DEAR HARD TO SWALLOW: The glaring illegality here is that your company doesn't give you a lunch break. State law says that all employees who work more than six hours a day are entitled to at least a half-hour, uninterrupted meal break, whether they are managers or janitors.

The company doesn't have to pay for the break, but it has to give employees the time. Of course, this law has its exceptions. If you are the only person on duty, you can legally work without taking a lunch break -- if you agree to the arrangement.

I would suggest that you leave a copy of this column on your supervisor's desk or have a polite conversation with that person about your right to a lunch period.

As for not paying you when you forgo lunch, that may be legal if you and your colleagues are registered nurses.

RNs, who have college degrees, fall into the "professional" category of workers, and that status means that their employers don't have to pay them for any extra time they work.

On the other hand, if hourly employees worked through lunch, they would have to be paid for that time. But again, state law says that unless the one-person rule applies, employees should get a lunch break.

As for the break-loving staffers, who sound like hourly workers, the company by law cannot dock their pay for breaks of 20 minutes or less. Employers don't have to grant such non-meal breaks, but when they do, they can't dock employees if the rest periods are 20 minutes or shorter.

And employers can't legally dock the pay of professional employees unless they miss a full day for personal reasons.

DEAR CARRIE: My friend's supervisor just informed her that she must work seven days a week without any breaks because she is salaried and nonunion and she has no recourse. Is this legal? -- Tired and Hungry Friend

DEAR TIRED: This letter illustrates how rife the workplace is with misinformation about meal breaks and days of rest.

As I mentioned above, unless your friend agrees to forgo her lunch because she is the only person on duty, she is entitled to a lunch break. That is state law.

The fact that she is salaried and nonunion doesn't trump her right to a lunch break.

Her company doesn't have to give her non-meal breaks, but if she works more than six hours a day and wants a lunch period, the company must oblige.

And though employers can generally schedule employees to work any number of days, state law requires a day of rest each week for workers such as retail and factory workers, janitors and building superintendents.

Go to for more on state labor law and meal breaks.

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