by Angela Chagnon
A bill that would set rigid break requirements for employees is not sitting well with many employers.
H.41‘s purpose reads: “This bill proposes to require that employers provide employees with work breaks for meals and rest.”
Employers are currently required to provide employees with “reasonable opportunities” to take breaks during the work period, and many employers have policies in place that are more generous than the current law mandates. The bill would change the statutory language to require employers to “provide each employee with paid or unpaid breaks from work periods totaling at least 30 minutes during each six hours of work” to be scheduled “at least two hours after the work period commences and no later than two hours before the work period ends.”
“This is a solution in search of a problem,” said Betsy Bishop, President of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. “There are already sufficient work break policies on the Federal and State levels.”
Emergency room nurses had already testified against the bill, citing concerns about patient safety. Such requirements would not be feasible in a setting where people’s lives may depend on the availability of nurses. As a result, language was added to accommodate this problem.
In a letter to the legislators from the Vermont Grocer’s Association, Jim Harrison calls the bill “an unnecessary intrusion into employer-employee work schedules.” He writes:
“It is in an employer’s best interest to work with their employees. Each has needs that should be accommodated. It’s called common sense.
What happens at a small store with only one or two employees on duty? Do we put a sign up on the door that we will be back in 30 minutes? Or does the storekeeping just arrange to put more staff on duty when they are already working hard just to keep their head above water?”
Tasha Wallis of the more than 500 member Vermont Retail Association sent out letters to all representatives regarding this bill. She writes:
“I have spoken with Commissioner Annie Noonan from the Vermont Department of Labor. I understand that of 6,600 calls received by the Department in a given year only 100 of those calls relate to employment break issues. Employment break issues account for less than 2 percent of the calls to the Department of labor. This legislation attempts to resolve a problem that is hardly widespread.”
H.41 sets the remedy for a violation of this statute, as follows:
“An employee who is aggrieved by a violation of this section may bring a civil action for equitable and other appropriate relief, including reinstatement, civil damages in the amount of three times the employee’s hourly wage multiplied by the number of hours of break time that the employee was denied, costs, and reasonable attorney’s fees.”
Wallis concludes in her letter, “The proposed legislation complicates management in the workplace without resolving an identified and specific problem or improving the workplace for Vermont employees.”
Once again, at a time when we need to be attracting employers to our state, the legislature is going out of its way to find ways to create headaches and competitive disadvantages to doing business in Vermont.