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Smoke break guidelines

Question:

What about smoke breaks for servers, cooks, and managers? Do you think breaks should be allowed and if so how many per day?

– Margaret, Co-Owner, Bernie’s Oyster House, Tybee Island, Georgia

Answer:

A previous column on cell phone policies for restaurant employees brought a number of great follow-up questions—thanks for this one!

In my restaurant cooking days, I started smoking for a simple reason. Everyone else would go out for an after-service cigarette. I could either join them or stay back and get a jump on cleaning the kitchen. So I went the lazier, friendlier and less healthy route.

Federal wage law does not require breaks, and only requires that if employers do give breaks of up to twenty minutes, that they be paid. Some states, such as Nevada, supersede this law by requiring breaks. Other states require them for minors.

Whether an employee is a smoker or not, and whether or not the law requires it, it is a good policy to offer a limited and set number of breaks for smoking, personal phone calls, fresh air, or whatever the employee needs to do to be refreshed to continue work. Looking at the rhythm of the restaurant day, you may see times that make sense for breaks for various employees, such as just before or after service for a cook or server, or at the start of service for a porter.

Where I see trouble is in restaurants where employees are not officially given breaks but take them anyway. Smokers may take short, frequent breaks. Non-smokers may compensate by taking “important” cell phone calls or long bathroom breaks. Employees may ask to take breaks at critical times, frustrating managers. Non-smokers may feel that smokers are using their addiction as an excuse to step out more and it builds resentment. My advice is to offer a short break (family meal could be one of them) for each half-day or service for all employees and then be clear that smoking, personal calls, and other breaks are unacceptable at other times.

Finally, as a guest, it turns my stomach to smell both the delicious food I ordered and the cigarette on the hand or breath of the server placing it before me. Be sure to remind employees to wash their hands and freshen their breath after breaks, both for sanitation and good service.

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