Summary of Washington Rest Period/Break Laws
Does work keep you so busy that you don’t take any breaks and work right through lunch? Do your employees do the same?
In addition to losing the health and safety benefits of taking a break, employers may also be violating state law when they encourage or require their employees to work through rest breaks and lunch breaks. While some exceptions apply, under Washingtonlaw employers generally must provide their employees a minimum of one 10-minute break for every four hours worked, preferably near the middle of the four hour block of time. That means a minimum of two 10-minute breaks during an eight-hour shift and three 10-minute breaks in a 12-hour shift.
Similarly, most employers have an obligation to provide their employees at least a 30-minute meal break within five hours from the beginning of their shift. When the employer requires the employee to remain on duty on the premises or at a work site and act in the employer’s interest during the lunch period, the employer typically must pay the employee for the lunch break.
So, whose job is it to make sure that your employees can take their breaks? The employer, according to the Washington Court of Appeals (see Pellino v. Brink). The defendant in that case argued that “an employer does not have a duty to ‘provide’ meal and rest breaks but only is required to allow employees to take meal periods and rest breaks by not standing in the way of employees who choose to take their breaks." The Court disagreed, concluding that the applicable regulation “imposes a mandatory obligation on the employer."
Some employers provide employees with rest breaks and meal periods but for business purposes need their employees to respond to business concerns that come up during the break. Court decisions don’t typically take issue with that as long as employees are able to later resume/extend their breaks (i.e., time spent engaged in work activity does not count toward the length of the breaks) and as long as the underlying purpose of the rest period (i.e., rest) is not compromised.
How serious is it to deny an employee rest breaks or meal periods? In many cases the law requires that the employer compensate the employee for the rest periods and meal periods denied. In addition, when the employer has withheld such compensation the law presumes (at least initially) that the withholding was willful and intentional and authorizes double damages and the award of legal costs against the employer—ouch!
Legal Business Tip of the Day: Take 10.
(Current as of 10/12)