Breaks and time off from work, what are your rights?
Everybody loves time off work. Whether it’s a quick 15 to enjoy a cup of joe or a nice long weekend away at a cottage, you may notice that you are extra productive at work after you’ve had a proper break.
When it comes to the workplace, rest is important for health, happiness, and ultimately, productivity. A well-rested employee is able to give their best. Research has even shown that down time is key to boosting motivation, creativity, concentration and innovation. It helps you to problem solve and process new information. It even improves your immune system.
In short, a well-rested employee is a productive employee. This applies to workers whose labour is physical, mental or emotional.
In Ontario, employees’ rights to time off from work – such as breaks for lunch – are set out in the Employment Standards Act (ESA).
Meal Breaks in Canada
According to the ESA, all employees (with some exceptions) are entitled to one 30-minute break within the first five hours of work. That is, no employee should work more than five hours in a row without a break. Workers also have the option to split this 30-minute break into two 15-minute breaks with the oral agreement of their employer.
Regardless of how an employee chooses to allot their break time, this time must be uninterrupted. They must be completely free from their work duties during their break time.
This 30-minute break time is unpaid. It does not count towards hours of work, overtime or vacation pay. This means that most employees’ work days are actually 8.5 hours in order to achieve a 40-hour work week: eight hours working plus half an hour break each day.
Employees may have additional breaks (often 15-minute ‘coffee breaks’) written into their employment contract. If extra breaks are outlined in your contract then this allotment is binding. However, if the employee must remain at their place of work for these additional breaks, the breaks must be paid.
Ontario Shift Workers
What about employees doing shift work? These employees must have eight hours off work between shifts whose combined time exceeds 13 hours. For example, if you worked at a restaurant, you may work a split shift from 6:00-10:00 am and then 12:00-4:00 pm because the total number of hours worked is only eight. You could not, on the other hand, work a 6:00-10:00 am and then a 12:00-8:00 pm split shift as you would have worked 14 hours with only two hours break in between.
Daily and Weekly Rest
Breaks from work are about more than eating. Employees are also entitled to 11 consecutive hours off work each day. This is referred to as ‘daily rest’. This means an employee who finishes work at 11:00 pm, cannot return to work any earlier than 10:00 am the next morning.
In addition to this 11-hour break between work days, employees are entitled to 24 consecutive hours off work every week or 48 consecutive hours off work in every consecutive two-week period.
Employees cannot opt out of these rights to daily and weekly rest. However, there is an exception for employees who are on call or called in under exceptional circumstances.
According to the ESA exceptional circumstances under which an employee may be asked to forgo the above break entitlements apply “only so far as is necessary to avoid serious interference with the ordinary working of the employer’s establishment or operations.”
Examples of exceptional circumstances include emergencies that may arise from or an accident, natural disaster or serious equipment failure.
Unforeseen situations that would compromise the provision of essential public services (such as transit or hospitals) and the unexpected interruption of seasonal operation (such as a harvest) or continuous processes (such as an assembly line) would be considered exceptional circumstances. The need to fill a rush order, meet the demands of busy holiday periods or cover an employee who calls in sick are not.
Well-rested employees are good for business
As an employer you may relish the idea of your employees working as long and as often as possible, in reality, they are far more likely to work effectively if they are given adequate breaks from work.