I hear it all of the time from clients... "I provide breaks for my employees, but sometimes they don't take them. I can't force them to take breaks. Am I breaking the law?" One client in particular got hit with a lawsuit from a former employee claiming that the employer had not given proper lunch breaks. We see it all the time where employees want to take shorter lunches to get out of the office earlier at the end of the day. While the employer did have coverage in force to defend this claim (Wage and Hour coverage) the employer ended up having to pay wages associated with the missed breaks because although the employer claimed he had given breaks to the employee, he could not prove it and it was not documented anywhere. Documentation is extremely important in this part of the employee records.
Up until recently there was a lot of ambiguity concerning the law regarding meal breaks and what is required of employers. Several class action lawsuits have shed some light on the issue and they all typically favor employers who clearly offer breaks, require employees to take the breaks, and have documented guidelines that are conveyed to all employees. The gray area of an employer 'forcing' and 'monitoring' an employee to take breaks may never be 100% clear, but there are certain practices that can be implemented that will help employers avoid possible confusion with their employees, which in turn creates a better work environment that is less likely to result in possible claims.
Clarity is extremely important. An employee handbook that, among other items, clearly spells out the company break policy is vital. Consulting a legal or HR professional to draft a company-wide policy is the best idea if available. Another good practice would be to have all employees sign off on reading this policy to further their understanding. In addition, managers should be well aware of the company break policy and be actively informing all employees under their supervision of proper break times as directed under the company policy. This should involve strict training of the managers by a legal or HR professional. Managers should also have disciplinary or 'write-up' procedures for employees who are not following the company break policy. Documentation is key in this field, and the more steps employers take (and document) the better off they will be in the long run.