A reader writes:
I usually spend my breaks walking around the store for exercise. I remove my name tag and stuff it into my pocket, and I don’t wear anything else that would identify me as an employee of the store. If I’m off the clock on a break and a customer stops me and asks me a question, I will politely (although reluctantly) stop and answer that question. I’ve always felt that since I’m off the clock on these occasions, I’m not required (and in fact, policy dictates that I’m not allowed and management cannot ask me) to do any work, including answer questions from customers. But today I was told that this is not quite the case.
As I was walking, one of our regular customers recognized me and started to ask me about an item. I don’t work with merchandise, so I rarely know these questions, but had I been on the clock, I would have stopped and found someone who would have known how to answer his question. Since I was on MY time, I said, “I’m sorry, I’m off the clock and can’t help you right now” and kept walking. I ran into this guy again after I’d clocked in after lunch and asked if he’d found what he needed. He said that he had, but he thought I’d been rude to him. Of course, I apologized and said that wasn’t my intention; we’re simply not allowed to work off the clock. This didn’t satisfy him, as he added that he had talked to my general manager. I still thought I was good but decided to ask my immediate manager just to be sure.
She told me that in these cases, I am expected to stop what I’m doing, either help the customer or find someone else who can, and then adjust my time to get paid for my work when my lunch is over. Again, my company’s policy clearly states that a manager cannot ask an employee to work off the clock, but there are no clear guidelines for this particular scenario (I checked on the company site after this conversation).
I’ll probably wind up asking my general manager or human resources, but I wanted to get your take on this in the meantime. I could have been less abrupt with the customer, but can my managers force me to work during my lunch break by having me fill out a sheet to be paid for that time?
Yes, at least in your state (Alabama). The policy that says that a manager can’t ask you to work off the clock is only about pay; it means that they can’t ask you to work without pay. They can, however, ask you to work during a break period as long as they ensure that you end up getting paid for that time.
The reason for that is this: No federal law requires that workers be given lunch or other breaks. Some states require breaks, but these laws vary by state. In states that don’t require them — like yours — your employer can interrupt your break because it’s something they’re “giving” to you by choice (as opposed to it being required).
Given that, it’s reasonable that your boss doesn’t want employees telling customers, “Sorry, I’m on my break.” From the customer perspective, this is frustrating, unhelpful, and unfriendly. (It reminds me of the time when I waited in a long grocery store check-out lane, only to get to the front of the line and have the cashier announce that it was time for her break and then walk out of the store, leaving me standing there with all my groceries.)
Anyway, of course your boss doesn’t want you refusing to help customers. If you don’t want to be interrupted by customers on breaks, your best bet is to leave the store during those periods or remain in employees-only areas where customers won’t spot you.