The Importance of Practice Policies for Breaks

Ensuring that your practice has a written policy on breaks and meals that all employees know and understand isn't just about improving morale - it is also a financial situation for practice owners.

Do you run a busy medical practice? Does it seem like, just at the busiest times, someone wants to leave the office for lunch? Or run out on an errand during an afternoon break? If meal time and break time guidelines are not clearly specified, chaos can result. And chaos can be both counter-productive, while leading to an unhappy work environment.

The key to avoiding that situation, says Neil Maxwell, a partner in the health care practice at Kurzman Eisenberg Corbin & Lever LLP, is communication.

“You want to have a happy work place; a work place that has a good atmosphere,” Maxwell explains. “And you want communication. You want to treat everyone as best you can.”

Make policies clear

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers are not required to give employees breaks or meal periods. But that’s federal law. And as Maxwell points out, there are 50 states, which usually mean 50 sets of rules, particularly when dealing with health care.

“You have to understand what the law requires, and then apply that to your individual practice,” Maxwell says. “Know what you have to do, but then also know where you can bend, where you can give.”

For example, Maxwell explains that the New York State labor law, Section 162, states that hourly office workers who work more than a six-hour shift are entitled to a half hour meal break if their shift begins before 11 a.m. and extends past 2 p.m. That’s not an unusual scenario for most medical practices. But being afforded a half-hour meal break doesn’t necessarily mean being paid for that time.

“If you do absolutely no work during that break for the employer, you’re performing no services for him, you do not have to be paid,” Maxwell says. “But if you are performing services, or are available to perform services, like eating at your desk and having to answer the phone, then you are required to be there on the premises, and you should be paid during that time period.”

Improving morale

Maxwell says that neither scenario — a half-hour meal break with pay or without pay — is necessarily better than the other. The important element, he says, is communication. Make certain that whatever the medical practice policy is, that it’s full explained and understood by all employees.

But as a personal opinion, he says there are ways to improve staff morale.

“If you have an hourly worker, and let’s assume they’re getting $20 per hour to make them a happy camper, if they’re there five days a week, pay them an extra $100 (for five lunch periods),” Maxwell suggests. “It may not break your bank, but it may make everybody happy, and let everybody know that they have generous employers.”

Maxwell stresses the importance of putting practice policy in an office manual, and asking all employees to sign off to ensure they understand practice policies. Typically, he says, these office manual policies will state: “This is our current policy, but we reserve the right to change the policy without notice at any time.”

“I can tell you that I’ve had a couple of instances where employees have been terminated, or left, and then they go to the New York State Department of Labor and they claim for unpaid wages due to not getting paid during their lunches,” Maxwell says. “It’s all due to a lack of communication.”

Get proper counsel

Because there are different labor regulations for each state, Maxwell suggests physicians contact an attorney or other knowledgeable individual who can research the proper laws regarding meal and other break times. Then, with that information in hand, construct or frame a workplace policy in such a way that you’re abiding by the law, but can still tweak it, if you choose, to make for a happier work environment.

“And again, my strong suggestion is to publish the policy in an employee handbook, or send out a memo and have everyone initial it,” Maxwell says. “It’s a financial situation. In any medical practice, any money that is not paid for overhead or employee salaries and malpractice insurance, at the end of the day those net profits go in the doctor’s pocket. But understand the pressures physicians are under right now with reimbursements being reduced and reduced, and insurance companies looking to post payment audits to try to get funds back.”

That’s why, Maxwell says, it’s important to know the law in your state, and then work within its parameters. You may be required to provide a half-hour meal break, but you may not be required to pay for it.