Business: The Unpaid Coffee Break

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When Denver Tiemaker Phil Greinetz lost his best weavers to the armed forces during World War II, he hired elderly women for his little (20 looms) Los Wigwam Weavers. They were fine workers, but tired easily. At their suggestion, he experimented with 15-minute rest breaks morning and afternoon and provided coffee. When Greinetz found that workers who took the break produced more ties, he made it compulsory. But since wages were frozen, he could not pay his employees for the rest time. The employees did not care; as production soared, earnings on piece rates went up to $1.02 hourly.

Everything was fine until a U.S. Department of Labor wage-hour inspector turned up at the little shop last summer. When he found out about the coffee breaks, he said that Greinetz would have to pay for the time. Said the inspector: "As soon as they step in your shop, they are on your time." Greinetz refused to pay, so the Labor Department took the question to Colorado's U.S. District Court.

Last week Greinetz won his point. Ruled Federal Judge Jean S. Breitenstein: "These are older people who need this break to enable them to work, but there is no reason for Greinetz to pay for it." Labor Department experts could think of no similar court decision* on the coffee break. Since it could upset a long-standing Labor Department ruling that any rest period of less than 20 minutes counts as working time, Government attorneys considered an appeal to higher courts.

* In a test case early this year, California's Industrial Accident Commission ruled that a worker who broke a leg while rushing out of the office during a coffee break was entitled to workmen's compensation.