What are your legal rights when it comes to taking breaks at work
Gimme a break!
Everybody wants a break in life, but what are your rights to take a break at work?
I'm referring to coffee breaks, bathroom breaks, time to eat and rest periods between shifts.
Sadly, this is a very complex area to navigate. There are general rules that apply, but we have different rules, or indeed no rules, for various categories of employees in Ontario. There are dozens of categories of employees based on the industry in which they are employed and the type of work they perform. Beyond that, some of the rules can be modified by individual agreements or collective bargaining agreements while others cannot be modified. It's all rather confusing and the government really needs to clarify and simplify these laws.
The general rule in Ontario is that an employee who has worked at least five consecutive hours is entitled to a minimum 30-minute meal break, although your employer may give you longer or more frequent breaks. Your employer is not required to pay you for this meal break. Of course, if you receive a weekly salary, payment during the meal break becomes irrelevant as you will still receive your weekly salary.
Strange as it may seem, employment standards laws in Ontario do not cover any other type of break. That means that it is up to your employer to determine whether and to what extent you may take a coffee or even a bathroom break!
In spite of this gap in employment standards legislation, I believe that any employer who does not allow reasonable and necessary bathroom breaks would get into legal difficulty of some sort.
If you are required to stay at your workplace during a coffee break you should get paid even though you are on a break. Rules regarding coffee and bathroom breaks can be agreed upon between employer and employee, including a collective bargaining agreement.
Breaks may be short but they add up and employers who don't follow the rules can end up on the wrong side of a class action lawsuit. In the U.S., Wal-Mart has faced dozens of lawsuits involving hundreds of thousands of employees claiming that managers shortened breaks or forced employees to work during part of their breaks. Although each individual claim is likely only worth hundreds of dollars, Wal-Mart recently settled 63 of these lawsuits and agreed to pay between $352 million and $640 million (U.S.), so you can see that there's a lot of money at stake in ensuring that you get the breaks to which you are entitled.
Aside from meal breaks there are also general rules regarding breaks between shifts (at least eight hours unless the total time worked in both shifts is under 13 hours), daily breaks (at least 11 consecutive hours off work) and weekly or biweekly breaks (at least 24 consecutive hours off work each week or at least 48 consecutive hours off work in every period of two consecutive weeks).
I suspect that in these tough economic times there are many employers who are denying employees their rightful breaks. Some may be ignorant about the rules but others may do it intentionally to save money.
To verify your rights, call the Ministry of Labour. In Ontario, call 416-326-7160 or 1-800-531-5551. Of course, if you are a member of a union your union representative should know the rules.
If it makes you feel any better, professionals such as doctors, lawyers and accountants have no specific break entitlements, nor do supervisory or managerial employees. Remember that the next time you have to wait for your appointment with a doctor.
Alan Shanoff was counsel to Sun Media for 16 years and is currently a freelance
writer and teaches media law.