OK to restrict worker to building for breaks


Q. My neighbor stocks shelves overnight at a large retail store. He typically works eight hours but sometimes as many as 10. He likes the job except for the breaks. He is not allowed to leave the building during his free time. He receives two 15-minute unpaid breaks or one 30-minute break a day. He's upset because he likes to go outside to get some fresh air or just to get away for a few minutes. The manager claims this shut-in policy deters stealing, which may be true. But is it legal, especially since the breaks are unpaid? Other employees say that different locations of the same chain don't have this policy.

A. Astoundingly, the company can legally make him remain on the premises. But it has to give him an uninterrupted meal break of at least a half-hour.

The two 15-minute breaks are no stand-in for that half-hour meal period that some states' labor laws grant employees who work at least six hours a day. Their companies don't have to pay them for that time, if the employees are truly free from work. This is not included in Maryland law.

Under federal labor law, the company can legally prohibit your neighbor and his fellow workers from leaving the premises for breaks or lunch.

According to Section 785.19(b) of the labor section of the Code of Federal Regulations: "It is not necessary that an employee be permitted to leave the premises if he is otherwise completely freed from duties during the meal period."

But as the statute indicates, if the company makes employees work during the meal period, it has to pay the employees for that time.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees workplace safety, would get involved if the store didn't provide unlocked emergency exits. If the restrictions continue to bother your friend, perhaps he should try another location or a new company altogether.

Carrie Mason-Draffen is a columnist for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. E-mail her at yourmoney@tribune.com.

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