Employment Laws and Unintended Consequences

As each year passes, federal and state legislators and administrators increase the number and types of laws and regulations that govern the relationship between employers and employees. Although the number and types of laws governing the workplace differ between states, most are intended to protect the interests of employees; guarding employees from the oppressive hand of their employer. There is little doubt these regulations benefit employees in some impactful ways. However, they also lead to several unintended consequences that negatively affect the same employees they are designed to protect.

Unintended consequences are the unplanned results of planned decisions and actions. Sometimes the unplanned results are positive and sometimes they are negative. Either way, employment laws are filled with them and it is the negative consequences that aggravate employees the most.

Let’s take meal and break laws as an example. Many states require employers to provide employees with lunch and other breaks. The breaks may be paid or unpaid, depending on the demands of each state’s laws. (To find out which states have such laws, visit our state meal and break law summaries page.) For many employees, these laws ensure that they are given time during the day to rest, recuperate, and/or eat. Many employers, recognizing the increased productivity and other benefits of providing breaks, grant employees these rest periods voluntarily. And where voluntary meal and break periods allow employers and employees significant flexibility, mandated meals and breaks do not. From that inflexibility flows many unintended consequences.

Most meal, lunch, and break laws do not allow employees to waive their right to the break, lunch, or meal period. This means that employers can no longer agree to allow employees to work through breaks or meal periods so that the employee can come into work late or get off work early. That employees agreed to waive their right to breaks provides no defense for an employer who is later accused of violating the law.

Similarly, employees who would otherwise suffer no punishment for working through breaks or lunch, either with permission or without, may now be subject to discipline for not taking breaks as required. Many employers, in order to ensure compliance with the law, implement a discipline policy that penalizes employees that fail to comply with break and lunch rules. Employees with chronic difficulty abiding by the rules, no matter how well-intentioned, could suffer suspension or termination simply because an employer cannot afford the cost of not complying with the law.

Mandatory break laws may also result in employees being prohibited from taking breaks or lunch at their desks because they risk being asked to perform work. This means that employees who work for employers with generous internet usage policies would not be permitted to sit at their desks and surf the net during their breaks or lunch. Although this is a convenience issue more than anything, for many employees it may lead to a less enjoyable work environment.

This list of potential negative consequences to mandatory meal and break laws is not comprehensive. Employers and employees alike could tell stories where they have been negatively affected by them. What this list does provide is a glimpse into how employment laws and regulations, not just regarding meals and breaks, can negatively impact employees who were the intended beneficiaries of such laws. Whether the costs are worth the benefits is up to each person to decide.