The Human Resource: Employee breaks cost

Before we even get into the core message of this article, be sure to check if your business is even obligated to provide a break to your employees under federal or state law. In many jurisdictions, there is no legal mandate forcing an employer to provide workers over the age of 18 any breaks whatsoever. In other states, such as Delaware, state law covers “meal breaks” and clearly defines what the employer must provide to the employees. This article is going to discuss both the myths about breaks and what the real issue is when breaks are being abused.

The U.S. Department of Labor indicates that any employee break of fewer than 20 minutes is compensable work time. This means that long bathroom breaks, water cooler talks, chats around the cubicle, getting their breakfast out of the microwave, and so many other scenarios going through your mind right now may all fall under compensable work time by the DOL. What does this mean for you in practical terms? First, consider that while you are paying an employee to perform work, you are allowed to expect and require them to be working. The caveat that restroom breaks are practical and appropriate during the day when taken in accordance with normally expected frequency and duration.

Smoke breaks are something many employers think are permitted and that they must allow it, but this is not the case at all. In fact, when there is a portion of the workforce taking smoke breaks there is almost a portion of the workforce resentful at how “management” allows those employees to take so much time away from their work and they must sit and continue working. The mismanagement of employee performance results in employee relations and morale issues that can negatively impact the business.

Don’t just focus on smoke breaks either, because for every employee taking a smoke break there could be an employee just walking the office chatting with co-workers. The real issue here is observing how many breaks are taking place a day, and the impact on your business.

Let’s do some math, shall we? Assuming you have an employee at an hourly rate of pay of $15. This individual takes four breaks a day of 15 minutes, resulting in a total of 1 hour in which they are being paid not to work. Now, continuing with the math this person does this every day, so using approximately 260 days in the work year (five days times 52 weeks) this one individual is costing your business $3,900 to not work during their breaks. Now, multiply this by perhaps 5 employees all doing the same thing, and suddenly you are spending $19,500 a year to produce no work. Reality check, you are also paying your employer payroll tax liabilities, your unemployment insurance, and your workers’ compensation costs in return for no work.

The solution? Find the closest mirror, gaze into it, and then reflect on who is responsible for holding the employees accountable to perform their job. Management is, and therefore if you want to stop spending money on employees who are not working, you need to reset expectations with the workforce and hold employees accountable to do their assign work during their assigned work schedule. You must be fair and consistent in your practices, and you must ensure you do not penalize employees for your failure to hold them accountable to do their job by setting the right expectations, leading by example, and building a culture in which employees are working when they are supposed to be.

Okay, someone reading this is going to comment that “my employees are FLSA Exempt” so this doesn’t apply. Perhaps there is no direct impact on the pocketbook because of your FLSA classification of their position, however I would still hold true that lack of managing the performance of the employee can cause a significant financial drain in which you are paying a salary and not getting in return the level of job performance you expect or should demand.

At the end of the day, the real issue is almost always a lack of appropriate performance management. Educate and train your supervisors today and start improving productivity and saving money tomorrow.

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About Warren Cook

Warren S. Cook is a co-founder of SymbianceHR and leads all client-consulting engagements. He is a human capital strategy management subject matter expert with more than 20 years of experience as a strategic business partner, project manager, and people leader across private and public sectors organizations. Warren is responsible for all client-consulting engagements from initial needs assessment and compliance review through delivery of customized complex human capital strategy solutions that meet the client's business goals. He has a proven track record of providing executive coaching and guidance to business leaders and human resource professionals at all levels including the C-Suite of Fortune 100 companies. Warren combines his human capital, project management, and business management experience with a philosophy of solving business challenges through the strategic implementation of policies, processes, and procedures to deliver sustainable solutions that demonstrate ROI, mitigate and manage risk, and empower organizational success. Warren is the author of “Applicant Interview Preparation – Practical Coaching for Today” and holds a bachelor of science degree in human resource management, a master’s of business administration in project management, and a master’s of science degree in industrial and organizational psychology. He is also a SHRM Certified Professional.

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