Give Me a Break

"The worst complaints said, 'Please don’t share this with anybody. I’m afraid of losing my job.'"


Idaho lawmakers were taking a break. Filling the Capitol Dining Room alongside lobbyists, reporters and the general public on Jan. 24. Most customers opted for a Reuben sandwich ($6.99) or the pot roast special ($7.99), while others nursed a cup of coffee ($1.50 with free refills).

Meanwhile, some state workers working across the Capitol Mall complex couldn't enjoy the same privilege. In fact, public and private employees across the Gem State don't have a right to one of the most basic tenets of an American workplace: an opportunity to step away from their stations to eat a meal, make a phone call or take care of some personal business.

"It's true," said Marty Durand, labor attorney with Herzfeld & Piotrowski, LLP. "The Fair Labor Standards Act sets the minimum wage and says that if you work more than 40 hours a week, you get overtime. But that's it. There's nothing about a break."

That's why 20 states have enacted laws allowing workers to have a 30-minute unpaid break without fear of being punished. And that's why Durand, a 21-year Idaho attorney and former executive director of the Idaho Women's Network, approached Boise Democratic Rep. Phyllis King about the issue two years ago.

"Rep. King is a great advocate for workers and middle-class families," said Durand. "When I brought this to her attention and told her there was no law that says you have to offer a break, her reaction was shock. I said, 'A simple piece of legislation could take care of that.'"

House Bill 432 was introduced by King in 2012, but she conceded to Boise Weekly that she "didn't think it was going to go anywhere."

"But I was amazed at how many people wrote to me when they got wind of this," said King. "And the calls. ... I received so many poignant calls. That's when we knew something was up."

Though HB 432 didn't receive a public hearing during the 2012 session, advocates for the measure told BW that they learned of numerous instances of state employees who were afraid to say anything publicly about not getting any kind of a break.

"They're scared and their fear is well-grounded," said Durand.

Daniel Wolf, spokesman for the Idaho Association of Government Employees, said state agencies were notorious for inequity in who gets a break and who doesn't.

"At some of those agencies--even in the same building--you'll see some people getting one-hour breaks every day and then, in that same building, some people aren't getting any kind of a break," said Wolf. "In a number of agencies, we have employees who work through their lunch breaks without saying anything because they think they can't speak up."

King has a simple theory as to why a state worker would be fearful to ask for the privilege of getting a break: benefits.

"It's because they need the insurance. Those workers stay with a lousy job and with a lousy boss," she said. "And it's almost always because they need the health insurance."

King said she heard from a number of those employees but, to the person, they wished to remain anonymous.

"The ones who had the worst complaints said, 'Please don't share this with anybody. I'm afraid of losing my job,'" said King.

Another legislator, Boise Democratic Rep. Holli High Woodings, said she has also heard of no-break workplaces from a relative.

"My brother-in-law was working for a company in Rexburg and that company wasn't offering any type of a break," said Woodings. "I said, 'That can't be legal.' But I looked at the Idaho statutes and federal laws, and, sure enough, there was nothing there that guarantees any type of a break. I couldn't believe it. I think this is a no-brainer. It's not like we're trying to mandate that a break be paid for, nothing like that. This would be an optional 30-minute break."

The 2013 version of the legislation--dubbed the "sandwich bill" by its advocates--is expected to surface when King introduces the measure before the House Commerce and Human Resources Committee in the next several days. King and Woodings are the sole Democrats on the committee, which is chaired by Twin Falls Republican Rep. Stephen Hartgen.

The new bill would require an employer to offer a 30-minute unpaid break to any employee working seven and a half hours or more. But there would be exemptions, including any employer who employs two or fewer employees at one location at any one time. Corrections officers and anyone covered by a collective bargaining agreement would also be exempt.

"This bill does nothing to benefit union workers," said Durand. "Some people have very strong anti-union sentiments here; some people are very strong pro-union. The big chunk is in the middle."

Durand adds that the benefits outweigh any perceived inconveniences.

"Fatigue leads to workplace injuries. Plus, you're seeing more Idahoans in low-wage, high-pressure jobs. And that's where you see more people pressured to be more productive to make quotas. The more pressure placed on workers, the easier it is to exploit them," said Durand. "If you want a productive work force, you have to treat them like human beings."

As for the political reality of securing a hearing on her proposed legislation, King said she's been talking with her fellow members of the House Commerce and Human Resources Committee but response has been "noncommittal."

"But I'll give it my all," she said, then paused for a moment. "I don't know. I'm an optimist."