A three-year push by an opposition group within Transport Workers Union Local 100 has prompted the state Department of Labor to notify the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that it is legally required to provide subway workers an uninterrupted half-hour lunch period.
Both the MTA and Local 100 agree lunch breaks for the rapid-transit workforce are governed by their collective-bargaining agreement, which provides for a paid lunch as well as compensation for missed breaks.
No Substitute for Law
But Ben Valdes and Tramell Thompson, both Progressive Action activists and Train Operators, initiated the complaint, maintaining that every worker under state law was entitled to a half-hour lunch break and that a collective-bargaining agreement can’t supersede that law, even if employees are compensated for the missed time. Mr. Thompson was a candidate for Local 100 president in last year’s union election.
The Department of Labor declined to comment on its notification, which mentioned possible penalties if the MTA didn’t come into compliance with the law by Aug. 14.
In a phone interview, Mr. Valdes said he wrote state Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon about the issue in 2016.
“All the case law that I read said you could not waive that right with a collective-bargaining agreement,” he said.
Mr. Valdes added that wolfing down a sandwich in 10 minutes and returning to service is a hardship with potentially significant health consequences for workers with low blood-sugar.
“They don’t care,” he said. “They don’t care what kind of condition you have, if you are pregnant. The railroad comes first for them.”
“Back in 2016 a pregnant Train Conductor had come up to me and said she wasn’t allowed to take her lunch because she had to make her scheduled run,” he recounted. “I took offense at that. How can the MTA allow a pregnant woman to have to choose between eating or going to the bathroom?”
On July 15, Department of Labor Senior Labor Standards Investigator Vincent Hammond wrote Mr. Valdes that his agency had put the MTA on notice of the legal requirement for an uninterrupted lunch break.
“We have also informed them of the potential civil penalties that they may incur if they do not meet these requirements under Article 7, Sec. 218.1 of the NYS Labor Law,” he wrote. Mr. Hammond also noted that the agency had 30 days to “comply with these guidelines.”
Mr. Valdes said he followed up with additional correspondence to the DOL after he “worked without any kind of a 30-minute break” on Aug. 6. He has not gotten a response.
The MTA confirmed receipt of Mr. Hammond’s correspondence and emphasized there had “been no finding of wrongdoing against New York City Transit in this matter.”
“Under long-standing and legally compliant provisions negotiated with the union in the collective-bargaining agreement, NYC Transit’s thousands of conductors and train operators are provided paid lunch breaks as well as compensation in the event of missed break time,” the MTA said in a statement. “This practice allows NYC Transit and its train crews to successfully meet the significant challenge of keeping the subways moving for millions of New Yorkers every day.”
What Contract Stipulates
An MTA source said the union contract “provides for a 30-minute lunch between the 3rd and 6th hour of work” and that every “Train Operator or Conductor who has a lunch period that is less than 20 minutes is compensated for a full 30-minute period at full pay.”
On this issue, Local 100 was on the same page.
“TWU Local 100 works under a Collective Bargaining Agreement,” the union said in a statement. “We have not received any directive from the Department of Labor purporting to supersede the CBA.”
The skirmish over an uninterrupted lunch period is playing out as Local 100 and the MTA remain far apart in contract talks, with the union’s Executive Committee rejecting management’s initial offer as “insulting.” A pact that expired in mid-May remains in effect.
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