Tennessee GOP Tries To Roll Back Workers' Meal Break Law

In this April 1, 2013, photo, Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, left, confers with legislative research analyst Nathan James d
In this April 1, 2013, photo, Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, left, confers with legislative research analyst Nathan James during a committee meeting in Nashville, Tenn. With many of the most contentious issues already decided, leaders in both chambers are hoping for a smooth ending to the legislative session. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

A Tennessee Republican has introduced a bill in the state senate that would allow workers to waive their right to a 30-minute meal break, a move that could open workers up to employer coercion, the Nashville Scene reports.

Under current state law, workers who log at least six consecutive hours are entitled to a legally mandated half-hour break. Restaurant workers were given the option to forgo that right two years ago, and now Sen. Brian Kelsey wants to extend the waiver option to all hourly workers.

"I've heard stories that some employees would like to move that 30 minutes to the end of their shift," Kelsey told The Tennessean. "And right now, they're not legally allowed to do that when they take their breaks."

Even though it sounds like a great option on paper, making a meal break optional can put a lot of workers in an awkward spot, as Bobby Allyn explains in the Scene. Plenty of people in fast-paced businesses may feel pressured to give up their breaks in order to please the boss. In fact, a lot of people already have to work through their breaks as it is:

In the food service industry -- where I worked the last two months -- there persists a culture in which breaks of any kind are shunned and the mere discussion of them can provoke awkward conversations between management and employees. At the restaurant where I worked, managers generally say that a break is permitted, as long as it gets their blessing. … In fast-paced, adrenaline-fueled work environments, those 30 minutes can really help maintain sanity and often provide a much-needed physical respite.

There is no federal law setting standards for meal or lunch breaks, leaving any such regulation to the states.

Efforts to loosen such workplace mandates are often done in the name of flexibility for both workers and employers, much like the Working Families Flexibility Act, which House Republicans passed in Washington last year. That bill allows hourly workers to opt for "comp" time rather than the legally mandated time-and-a-half pay for overtime. Like making lunch breaks optional, the comp-time bill could lead to some employees feeling pressured in the workplace -- in this case, to take time off rather than overtime pay, as their bosses might prefer. The White House has said it would veto such legislation if it ever made it to the president's desk.

In Tennessee, lawyer David Garrison told the Scene that Kelsey's proposal would help turn the lunch break into a luxury rather than a right.

"Given that Tennessee has practically no state statute that protects workers’ pay, it’s disappointing that the legislature would seek to attack a law that simply provides workers with a decent break during their work day,” Garrison told the paper.

Kelsey's bill is expected to pass both chambers of the GOP-controlled state legislature.