Work Hours, the Law and What Businesses Need to Know

The length of the working day and how many breaks employees are offered are hot topics with several high-profile cases coming to light, but what should employers take away from the headlines?

Here Laura Hill, solicitor at Roythornes Solicitors, breaks down the key points and highlights the crucial legislative information that businesses need to know.

In 2003, Regulation 12 of the Working Time Regulations (WTR) was amended further to ensure workers are entitled to an uninterrupted rest of at least 20 minutes if their daily working time is more than six hours.

The legislation was originally introduced for two main reasons; firstly, for employee health and safety – so people aren’t working for dangerously long periods of time – and to cater towards maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

These regulations do not just apply to employees but also employers and govern the time that people in the UK are entitled to work. They stipulate minimum rest breaks, including daily rest, weekly rest and the maximum average working week.

This equates to an average of 48 hours per week (unless opted out), ensuring an 11-hour continuous rest within the 24-hour period, with one 24-hour period off every working week. Additionally, if you are 16-17 years-old then you’re entitled to 30-minutes rest every 4.5 hours.

However, the recent Network Rail Infrastructure v Crawford and Federación de Servicios de Comisiones Obreras v Deutsche Bank SAE cases, suggest that these rights are still being abused.

In the Network Rail Infrastructure v Crawford case, Network Rail put forward an argument that shorter breaks, which eventually amounted to 20 minutes (e.g. 5 minutes every hour and a half), were more than adequate. The firm even suggested that shorter, more frequent breaks benefitted the health and safety of their employees.

However, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) opposed this and stated that an employer is not entitled to meet the 20-minute rest break requirement by aggregating breaks of a shorter duration. They also added, it is not open for discussion for employers to decide to not comply with WTR laws, based on what they think is more beneficial.

Similarly, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) recently ruled in the Federación de Servicios de Comisiones Obreras v Deutsche Bank SAE case that there was an EU-wide requirement under Working Time Directive (WTD) – the EU version of the WTR – to maintain an objective, reliable and accessible system to measure working time.

The ECJ’s decision was a result of a dispute between four Spanish trade unions and the bank over poor record keeping regarding unpaid overtime.

In the UK, the WTR also requires employers to keep satisfactory records to show whether employees are working longer than the 48 hours per week limit. This regulation not only ensures proper bookkeeping but helps monitor overtime and opens a dialogue with employees regarding proper breaks.

It’s clear from these two recent cases that some employers are willing to push the boundaries of the Working Time Regulations. It’s therefore important that employees are aware of their rest at work entitlements and ensure they receive them.

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