Give Them A Break: Hourly Workers Need Meals, Breaks Protected Nationally

It's so convenient during summer lunch hours or just after work to pop into a nail salon for an inexpensive manicure or pedicure. But for the nail salon workers waiting on these customers, the workers' biggest complaint is not being able to eat lunch on time or get adequate breaks any time during the day.

The salon workers are not alone.

For live-in domestic workers, many report they often must wait until the family is finished eating before getting the chance to eat. Gas station workers often work 12 hours straight. Frequently working alone, they not only lack meal breaks, they often do not even get enough bathroom breaks. Poultry workers are often denied bathroom breaks – forcing many to wear diapers to work and limit intake of liquids. 

The reality is a large majority of workers in low-wage jobs do not have the luxury of enjoying meal breaks. Federal law does not require lunch or coffee breaks, and three out of five states do not have laws or regulations on rest and meal breaks for adults employed in the private sector. Even in the state where laws exist, they are often violated. 

According to a 2009 report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP), more than two-thirds, or 69 percent of workers, received no break at all, had their break shortened, were interrupted by their employer, or worked during the break. More than one out of five workers did not receive any meal break at all. 

Meal and bathroom break violations do not exist in a vacuum. The basic employee protections Americans take for granted -- the right to be paid at least the minimum wage, the right to be paid for overtime hours, the right to take meal breaks, access to workers’ compensation when injured, the right to advocate for better working conditions, and the right to be free from discrimination —are not available to millions of workers.

From nail salons in New York City and garment factories in Los Angeles to tomato farms in Florida, poultry processing plants in Iowa, nursing homes in Texas, hotels in Tennessee and gas stations in New Jersey, workers are forced to toil long hours with no breaks and low pay.

These problems are not limited to the informal sector (called the cash economy), nor are these caused by just a few “bad apples.” Large and small employers violate the law. Small, family-owned businesses and companies, as well as franchises with national presences like McDonald’s, Papa John’s, and Starbucks have been accused of several wage and hour violations, including denying employees required meal breaks and underpaying them.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently filed a lawsuit against Domino’s Pizza and three of its franchisees for systematically underpaying workers using a proprietary software system called PULSE. Earlier last month, Governor Cuomo ordered 143 nail salons to repay $2 million in unpaid wages and damages to more than 600 workers.

Wage theft robs billions of dollars a year from workers in the U.S., pushing thousands of families below the poverty line and driving thousands more families deeper into poverty.

Whether we are customers or not, we all have a stake in addressing the problem of workplace violations. When significant numbers of workers are illegally underpaid, we lose tax revenues, resulting in decreased investment in schools, hospitals, and other services we need in our community.

When low-wage workers and their families struggle in poverty and have to depend on government safety net systems like food stamps, the taxpayers are effectively subsidizing the bad employers.

When law-abiding employers are forced to compete with unscrupulous employers who flaunt workplace laws by not paying minimum wages or sacrificing worker safety to boost their profit margin, the result is a race to the bottom that threatens to bring down standards throughout the labor market. 

There is a growing movement for workers’ rights, demanding not just the enforcement of current laws, but also to change them.

As New Jersey NAACP president Richard T. Smith puts it, the minimum wage battle and the fight for economic justice is “the new civil rights movement.” He says there is a need for “a comprehensive working families economic agenda that includes anti-wage theft, fair scheduling and higher minimum wage.”

Domestic workers’ bill of rights, starting from New York, is now a reality in five states. Farm workers in Florida have developed Fair Food Program to create a sustainable agricultural industry that advances the human rights of farmworkers.

The Fight for Fifteen campaign, started by fast food workers, is gaining momentum around the country and across industries. Two states (New York and California) and several cities have already approved the minimum wage to gradually increase to $15 per hour.

What can you do? Do not stop getting manicures or buying lattes unless the workers call for it. Let the owners and managers of businesses you frequent know that you support workers getting breaks. If you know someone whose rights have been violated, help them file a complaint and connect them with workers’ groups in your area. Support workers and organizations fighting for better workplaces.

It's only fair.