Let me ask you something. Can you go without a meal? How long can you hold it before you need to use the restroom? Throughout your day, do you ever take a quick break?
For some workers across the state, the idea of using the restroom, eating something to sustain themselves, or simply taking a brief respite is not possible. Sadly, in 2015 we are talking about something that seems to be out of a different era. We have an outdated policy on the books that is preventing certain workers from the same rights as their counterparts at other places of business simply because of an exemption that allows workers to be treated not like human beings, but like robots. Unlike the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, we do have a heart.
Under federal law, workers must be paid for any breaks less than 20 minutes. In the state of Maine, workers have a right to a 30-minute break after six hours of work. This law does not cover workers if there are not at least three workers on duty at one time. When a constituent of mine, who wished to remain anonymous, brought this to my attention, I was shocked that this was legal. He works at a convenience store and is not allowed – and even pressured to not take any breaks – including a few minutes for a meal or use the restroom. This is just simply wrong.
I’ve introduced LD 486, an act to require adequate rest breaks for employees. This is a pro-business and proworker bill. Yes you can have both. How do you get the most out of your workforce? It sure isn’t preventing them from using the restroom or eating something during a long shift. That is inhumane in my book. The value of workers on a business’ bottom line stems from their ability to produce and perform high quality work. I know I can’t perform at my best without subsistence and to break up the day to recharge creative juices.
In fact, it appears that our government has deemed it so important that we have codified into law that businesses must provide breaks for every worker, besides those where there are three or fewer employees working at any given time. Now if people didn’t need breaks, didn’t need to use the restroom, didn’t need to eat anything, let’s just change this bill completely right now and remove all breaks for workers in this state. We won’t do that because we recognize it’s inherent importance and the fact we are all human. It’s common sense.
One frequent question that circulates at the State House is, “What do our neighbors do?” So here it is. As far as I can tell, New Hampshire mandates that all workers must have a 30-minute meal break after five hours of work. There are no rest breaks, but no exemptions denying the meal break based on the number of employees. Vermont has a law that workers have to have time to eat and go to the bathroom. The law doesn’t say exactly how much time workers should get. In Massachusetts, workers have a right to a 30-minute break after six hours of work. Workers can choose to work through their meal period and must be paid. Though some workers are not covered by the law if there are special circumstances such as continuous processing, iron works, glass works, paper mills, letter press establishments, print works and bleaching or dyeing works.
We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the injustice happening; the double standard where people get shafted and treated like they are at the bottom of the food chain, the scum of the earth, simply because of the type of job they hold.
There will no doubt be critics of this proposal who say this is too much of a burden on our businesses. They will say it’s too difficult to comply, to implement, to offer effective scheduling or leeway for their hard-working employees. Sure it might be difficult, but the same argument has been overused throughout history. I’m sure businesses pushed back on child labor laws because it would cripple their profits and be too hard to adjust. The same could be said about the eight-hour work day, 40 hours a week, etc.
It’s time the Legislature steps up to provide the leadership we need at this time to address and fix this issue. The workers we are talking about are real people. They could be someone’s aunt, uncle, brother, sister, son, daughter, parent or even you. We can and will do better for the hard-working men and women of the state of Maine.
Justin Chenette is serving his second term as state representative for Saco District 15. Outside the Legislature, he is owner of Chenette Media LLC, a multimedia public relations company, and is the president/CEO of the Saco Bay Center for Civic Engagement, a 501c3 nonprofit service organization. Follow updates atwww.justinchenette.com, Facebook.com/JustinChenette, and Twitter.com/JustinChenette.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco