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April 23, 2012
Do Employees Value Their Lunch Break?

Do today’s employees value their lunch breaks? You’d think they would, but the surveys show otherwise. HR consulting firm Right Management found that, while in 2010, nearly 50% of 2,300 employees surveyed took time off for a mid-day meal, by 2011, that percentage had fallen to 35 in a survey of 750 workers.

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Why cheat on lunch hour? Right Management guesses the villain is the relentless push for productivity during the recession. In another survey, CareerBuilder found that 40% of corporate executives bring lunch from home; just 19% eat in a sit-down restaurant, while 17% settle for fast food. Women execs, studies find, are more averse than men to lunching out.

But career coach Rebecca Weingarten says it’s crucial for employees to take a lunch break away from the office to “clear their heads and gain perspective on what they're working on. Also, if you stumped by a problem, thinking about something else actually helps the brain process to come up with a solution.” There’s no federal law regarding breaks, but 20 states (CA, CO, CT, DE, IL, KY, ME, MA, MN, NE, NV, NH, NY, ND, OR, RI, TN, VT, WA, and WV) have varied laws requiring time off for such meals.

But this story has another side. Nonexempt employees must be paid for breaks with one exception: They can be given an unpaid 30-minute break for lunch, but they must be “completely relieved of duty.” Nor can employees volunteer to work through the unpaid break; if the employer knows they did so, they must be paid. A Chicago real estate company fired its receptionist and denied her unemployment benefits—because she  worked during her lunch period. But an Illinois appeals court ruled in her favor on the unemployment payments.

In another Illinois case and one from Alabama, employees were fired for, they said, complaining about often having to work through unpaid lunch breaks. Both sued, charging retaliation, and both won their cases. If you do give unpaid lunch breaks, it’s not wise to deduct the half-hour’s pay automatically from employees’ time records, in case a manager orders them to work, or there is routinely too much work to be done (as is common in healthcare settings). If you do perform automatic deductions for unpaid breaks, it’s important to instruct employees how to correct their time records when they work during those breaks.

Meanwhile, if HR pros see too many exempt employees eating lunch out of brown bags at their desks, why not sponsor some lunch gatherings in the cafeteria or a meeting room? Consider offering some benefits-related training during these sessions, or focus on other topics that interest employees. Your workers will benefit from the breaks.

Do you spend your lunch break at your desk? Take this week's poll.

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