tales of an SEIU Local 250 shop steward


"Hello! I'm here to relieve you for your lunch break!" -- Being relieved for a lunch or break has been an impossible dream to many in our hospital -- some even feel guilty for expecting such a thing. However, it IS state law that we have lunches and breaks, and it is also in our Local 250 union contract. It is an issue over which grievances can be filed, but thanks to a relatively new state regulation, that may not always be necessary.

In May of 2002, our Local 250 field representative informed our shop stewards' meeting of this regulation. "According to this law, if you miss a lunch or break, the employer has to pay you one hour's straight time for each occurrence," we were told. As this good news spread, e-mails from managment informed us that we were now REQUIRED to take our lunches and breaks and that we must inform managment if it appeared impossible to comply, to enable them to find relief coverage.But, if they couldn't provide relief:--"one hour's pay for each missed lunch or break!"

A timecard code was supplied to use on these unfortunate occasions so that Payroll could pay accordingly, and a list provided for employees to use in documenting the times and reasons for the missed lunches and breaks.

It's been the law (and MHS policy) that we are entitled to lunches and breaks for as long as anyone now working here can remember. HOWEVER, it's been a right that many only had if they insisted on it, since the wish to provide good patient care (and not abandon a patient in the middle of a medical procedure) usually supercedes the wish to insist on one's right to a timely lunch. Is it possible to provide good patient care AND employee lunches? In places with adequate staffing, yes! Former MHS employees who now work at Kaiser report being relieved with the "Hello, I'm here to relieve you for your lunch break!" statement, showing that it can be done if the will is there and staffing provided.

So where did this helpful lunch/break regulation come from? A chance encounter with Barry Broad at the Capitol during the UFW "March for the Governor's Signature" on August 25th provided an answer to this question.

Barry Broad is a labor lobbyist who served on the Industrial Welfare Commission during the period that the lunch break issue became law.

The volume of music from the UFW event (more on that event elsewhere!) made conversation difficult, so Woods, Barry and I walked across the street to Barry's office for a brief conversation. Here's what he had to say:

Me: How did the lunch break regulation come to pass?

Barry: It came to pass like this: here is the real, unvarnished story. The Industrial Welfare Commission was having a hearing in Burbank, and it was kind of a quiet day and there weren't a lot of people there. We were taking testimony generally on rest breaks and meal
periods. There weren't really any proposals around or any controversies. The Chief Counsel of the Labor Commission got up to answer a question about meals and rest breaks based on somebody's testimony and I asked him what the remedy was for failing to give somebody their break or meal period. He said that really, there IS no remedy; that in fact, the only thing that they can do is they can order the employer to start giving (breaks and lunch periods) but there is no remedy. So, I said, well, I don't think THAT's right.

At some point in our deliberations, the IWC was looking at restoring the 8 hour day, and implementing that legislation, which has many controversial provisions. Large drafts of changes in the regulations over many of these controversial issues were being put out to the public, and at one point I simply made a request to put into the draft something that said if an employer failed to give workers their meal period or rest period, they would be paid one hour of straight time every time they missed it.

My purpose in doing that was so that rather than just getting a lawsuit to inherit and suing
for a penalty or something, that it would simply be like liquidated damages--you would get them automatically. It would be like a time-and-a-half is a penalty for having someone work over eight hours a day--the employer can avoid it by simply not working people more than 8 hours a day, and they can avoid this penalty by simply giving people their meals and rest breaks. So, the proposal sat out there for public comment for 30 days or longer, if I recall, and no one commented, at all, one way or another. No one said anything.