Strachey: Paid or unpaid breaks

Dear Working Wise: I get two unpaid coffee breaks and one unpaid lunch break every day. The problem is the area outside my office is unsafe to walk in during the day due to construction. Since I can’t really leave my workplace during the day, shouldn’t I be paid for my breaks? Signed, Annoyed

Dear Annoyed: Alberta’s Employment Standards require employers to give most workers at least 30 minutes of rest during a shift that’s longer than five hours.

The 30 minutes can be taken all at once or broken into shorter periods as long as it totals 30 minutes.

Breaks can be paid, or unpaid, at the employer’s discretion, but the break must be paid if: The employee is asked or required to work through their break or if the employer places restrictions on the employee’s activities or refuses to allow them to leave the premises during their break.

Your situation is a bit of a grey area, because your employer isn’t requiring you to eat your lunch at the front desk so you can answer the phone. You just can’t go outside, because it is unsafe.

According to Employment Standards, your employer is likely not required to pay you for your breaks. You can call the Alberta Employment Standards Contact Centre toll-free at 1-877-427-3731 to get clarification or if you want to ask more questions.

Employers can ask staff to work through their breaks if it is unreasonable, impossible or impractical to accommodate the break, but they must be then paid for their time.

For example, it would not be practical to take a coffee break in the middle of a legal deposition, concrete pour, evacuation, sales presentation, or lunch rush.

These are the minimum standards and many employers voluntarily exceed these standards, because short, frequent breaks have been shown to increase productivity in the workplace.

Employees also need breaks between shifts. Employers are not allowed to work their staff longer than a 12-hour period in a workday unless an emergency occurs or the employer has a permit authorizing extended hours of work. This means, for example, that an employee who begins work at 8 a.m. cannot work past 8 p.m.

Employees must get at least eight hours rest from when their last shift ended to when the new one begins.

With rest days, employers must provide employees with one day of rest each week, or two consecutive days of rest in each period of two consecutive weeks of work, three days for three weeks of work, and so on. After 24 consecutive days of work, employees must be provided with at least four consecutive days of rest.

Some occupations are exempt from the minimum standards when it comes to hours of work, rest periods and days of rest, including oil well services, truck drivers, law enforcement, and some professional and sales positions.

For a complete list of exempt occupations or for more information on Alberta’s Employment Standards, visit work.alberta.ca/employment-standards and read the fact sheet on Hours of Work, Rest Periods, and Days of Rest.

Do you have a work-related question? Send your questions to Working Wise, at charles.strachey@gov.ab.ca. Charles Strachey is a manager with Alberta Community and Social Services.

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