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Lunch breaks on the chopping block

Bill would leave it up to employers

Mark MacKenzie, the state's AFL-CIO president, yesterday told Rep. JR Hoell of Dunbarton to give him a break.

Repeal the law requiring half-hour lunch breaks for employees after five straight hours of work?

Trust all bosses to do the right thing, all the time?

MacKenzie, who once fought fires and now fights for workers' rights, said pass the salad, not this bill.

"Quite frankly," MacKenzie said, "considering this is 2012, and I'm talking about the repeal of the lunch hour, this is outrageous."

MacKenzie, addressing the House Labor, Industrial and Rehabilitative Service Committee, spoke out against legislation sponsored by Hoell and backed by Rep. Kyle Jones of Rochester. He spoke about the heart he believed made up the core of most employers, about the sense of fairness and humanity that dominates the state's working landscape.

He acknowledged that most employers treat workers fairly, but he didn't think that was any reason to do away with a longstanding protection. Abolishing the lunch-break law - enacted 36 years ago as insurance against unfair working conditions - would be naive and impractical, MacKenzie said.

"The reality is, absent a law, employers are on their own to treat their workers the way they think is most appropriate," MacKenzie said. "Will they give them lunch hours? I don't know if that would be the case. I don't think every employer would deny them, but I think there would be some, certainly."

Hoell began the session with an appetizer that had nothing to do with what would later evolve into the crux of the matter. Instead, the Republican lawmaker talked about legislation with a mutual benefit.

For employers, the darn paperwork created if someone wishes to waive a mandatory lunch break, piled higher than a double-decker sandwich, would be no more.

"The reason I was asked to submit it is this is a paperwork nightmare for the HR department of some companies," Hoell said. "The company that asked me to submit this typically has some seasonal work, and in the off-season they tend to work shorter days, and the question is what to do about those shorter days. You could allow employees to go home."

Which is the second benefit that would surface by repealing the old law.

"Let's say you start working at 7 and want to finish by 12:30 or 1," Hoell said. "You want to work six hours that day, and you're required to give an employee a lunch break at 12 to 12:30, which keeps them on site until 12:30. In that case, you've kept that employee longer on the facility when they could be driving home or doing another job."

Committee members questioned Hoell, carving up his words like turkey on a meat slicer.

"I hear you talking about the people who work just six hours, that they don't have to take a lunch hour," said Rep. Herbert Richardson of Lancaster. "What about the person who works four 10-hour shifts? They could be required to work 10 straight hours with no break at all if this law were to be repealed. Is that not true?"

"I'm not a labor expert," Hoell responded, "so please forgive me."

Next, Rep. Jack Flanagan of Brookline asked Hoell if abuse might surface without the current lunch law.

"There is always potential to misuse freedom," Hoell said. "Whether that falls under the term abuse, that is rather broad."

Jones, the representative from Rochester, backed up Hoell. The 20-year-old, first-term lawmaker was grilled by hardened veterans after making his case. He said he flipped burgers at Burger King and also had supervisory duties.

"This is an unneeded law," Jones said. "If I was to deny one of my employees a break, I would be in a very bad position with the company's human resources representative. If you consider that this is a very easy law to follow in that everyone already does it, then why do we need it? Our constituents have already proven that they have enough common sense to do this on their own."

Richardson: "You don't think they're giving these (lunch) breaks because it's the law and they have to and they would do it if we did away with the law?"

Jones: "It's in their best interest to treat their employees well."

Flanagan: "You addressed retail business, restaurants and stores. I wonder if you have any experience with manufacturing groups, people who stand on the assembly line for multiple hours at a time, and how those people might be treated if this law were to be repealed where production is the key to profit."

Jones: "It's in the company's best interest if you're not shaky and you're well, to make sure you are healthy and well motivated."

The dialogue remained cordial yet passionate, centering on blind faith on one side, and a safety net, just in case, on the other.

Afterward, Hoell continued his defense, saying, "I believe employers will treat their employees well. This is a moot point."

To which MacKenzie, also stopped in the hallway outside, continued his own line of thinking, that Hoell was out to lunch.

"There is an assumption people are doing the right thing out there," MacKenzie said, "and that is not always the case."

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com.)

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