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Q and A: Break policy might violate labor laws

Question: I worked for a local company that gave us a 15-minute break after five hours. We had to punch out for the break and then punch back in. When I asked about having to do all this for a 15-minute rest, management advised me that the break ...

Question: I worked for a local company that gave us a 15-minute break after five hours. We had to punch out for the break and then punch back in. When I asked about having to do all this for a 15-minute rest, management advised me that the break was unpaid, even though employees were entitled to it. Did the company have the right to make the break unpaid? I know the New York Department of Labor requires a break after a certain number of hours, but the unpaid part was confusing.

Answer: The company's management seems to be unaware of basic state labor law regarding breaks. Other than meal breaks, which must be at least 30 minutes, companies don't have to allow rest periods. But if employers do give breaks of 20 minutes or less, they can't count that time as unpaid. Here is a summary from the state Labor Department's Web site:

"Other breaks, such as for rest periods or coffee breaks, are not required. If a break (of up to 20 minutes) is permitted, then it should be paid as working time."

The state mandates meal periods when employees work more than six hours a day, but employers don't have to pay for the time. Handling short breaks in a similar manner, however, is illegal.

For more information call the Labor Department at 516-794-8195 or 212-775-3880.

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Q: I was terminated from my job recently. I was told that my employer must pick up my medical (insurance costs) until the end of the month. Is this true?

A: That depends on your company's policy regarding benefits.

If its policy says it will continue to pay your health insurance for a certain period, then it is legally obligated to do so. But bear in mind that companies don't have to offer benefits, so when they do, they set the terms. And in this current economic environment, employers' benefits are becoming less generous.

Your company's insurer is obligated to tell you about health benefits under COBRA, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, which allows you to continue your benefits at your company's group rates, if you are eligible. But you pay the full premium price.

You might, however, qualify for the federal COBRA subsidy, which pays 65 percent of the premiums of eligible, unemployed workers. The current subsidy extension applies to workers who lost their jobs between Sept. 1, 2008, and Feb. 28, 2010.

The federal COBRA law applies to companies with at least 20 employees. New York State's version of COBRA applies to companies with fewer than that number. Both laws apply just to companies that offer benefits.

And the state recently amended its COBRA law to extend coverage for up to 36 months, versus the standard 18 months. Even if a worker in New York State qualifies for 18 months of COBRA coverage under the federal law, that person could qualify for an additional 18 months under the amended state law, which doesn't apply to self-insured companies.

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The law applies to policies or contracts issued, renewed or modified after July 1, 2009. So on a practical level, if you are insured already, you would have to wait for your health insurer's annual renewal period to take advantage of the new benefit. For more information call the Employee Benefits Security Administration at 866-444-3272.

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