Republican lawmakers have filed legislation that would give workers the option of waiving their 30-minute lunch break currently required under state law.
But critics say the bill would take away an important workplace safety requirement and create a work environment in which employers could strong-arm workers into skipping meal breaks.
State Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, said his intent is merely to give workers the option of bypassing the 30-minute unpaid break that almost everyone working at least a six-hour shift must take. In 2012, the legislature passed a law exempting restaurant workers and others who work for tips from the requirement.
"We just want to give employees the option," Kelsey said. "I've heard stories that some employees would like to move that 30 minutes to the end of their shift, for example. And right now, they're not legally allowed to do that when they take their breaks."
But union groups, Democratic lawmakers and labor law attorneys expressed concerns that the bill is really intended to give employers the ability to cut lunch breaks in an effort to increase productivity. They say lunch breaks are especially important for laborers, such as factory workers, for whom a 30-minute reprieve from intensive work helps prevent workplace injuries.
"While there are 660,000 Tennesseans who make less than $10 an hour who could certainly use some help from the state legislature, it is hard to imagine that giving up an unpaid lunch break is one of them," SEIU Local 205 President Doug Collier said.
Nashville attorney Dave Garrison, who frequently handles workers' rights lawsuits and wage disputes, said the 30-minute rule is designed to prevent workplace injuries because studies have proved that working long, consecutive hours increases the risk for accidents.
"It's not good for workers," Garrison said. "I represent workers and I've not heard this desire to get rid of their breaks."
House Democrats blasted the bill Tuesday afternoon in a prepared statement. State Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, said the legislature should focus on building the economy by raising the standard of living for working Tennesseans.
"The Republican majority has been focused tirelessly on eliminating rights for workers in a never-ending race to the bottom for wages and protections," Turner said. "The only result we have seen are wealthy corporations adding more to their bottom line, while Tennessee's unemployment and job growth projections are some of the worst in the nation."
Kelsey said his bill allows anyone who wants to keep a lunch break to do so. He said the bill also allows employers the discretion to decide whether they want to continue requiring breaks. He said he hadn't gotten feedback from business groups.
"We're just trying to provide more options for the employees," Kelsey said. "But the employers also have to go along."