No more mandated lunch breaks? Bill would remove requirement from Kentucky employers

A bill passed in a Kentucky House committee Wednesday would do away with the state’s currently mandated meal and rest breaks.

House Bill 500 from Rep. Phillip Pratt, R-Georgetown, repeals the state’s current requirement that employees be provided with a lunch break every three to five hours of work. It puts in its place a law that requires employers who don’t provide such lunch breaks to pay employees for their time while eating.

Pratt’s bill also repeals the state’s requirement that employers provide at least a 10 minute “rest break” to employees for each four hours of work.

The bill passed a House committee Wednesday with near-unanimous approval from the committee’s Republican members. Democrats voted against the bill.

The current law requiring employers to pay overtime — meaning a rate equal to one and a half times the normal pay rate — would also be repealed under House Bill 500. Further, the bill would also prevent employers from being punished for not paying minimum wage or overtime pay when an employee is traveling to and from a workplace.

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Pratt argued for the bill as a way to bring Kentucky in line with federal standards, which were set in the late 1950s and are a baseline for labor standards in the United States. He said having Kentucky’s law more closely match that baseline would make it easier for companies who have multi-state operations to follow Kentucky law.

“You have federal law, which says you must do this; then you have state law, which says you’ve got to do that. To run afoul of them becomes very easy,” Pratt said.

The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a leading voice against the bill, argued that House Bill 500 would weaken “common sense protections” for worker pay and safety.

“House Bill 500 will make work more dangerous by depriving workers of food and rest, incentivizing them to travel too quickly to get to their job site, and discouraging them from taking proper precautions at the beginning of shifts,” Dustin Pugel and Jason Bailey of the center wrote. “And it will take pay away from workers when they are moving between job locations, working excessive weeks, and putting on and off equipment necessary to do a job.”

In the committee, Democrats all voted no. Some Republicans voiced uncertainty about the bill’s “unintended consequences,” but all voted for it except one who passed on the measure.

Rep. Nima Kulkarni, D-Louisville, thinks the “erosion” of worker protections in the bill will make it harder for some employers to attract workers. Kentucky’s relatively low workforce participation rate has long been a priority issue for the Republican legislature.

“I think as a whole this bill is not necessary for cost savings, I’m assuming, to a small business owner. These laws were put in place decades ago to protect workers, and the more that we erode worker protections the harder it is for us to get people in those jobs,” Kulkarni said.

Pratt owns a landscaping company, which has led some opponents of the bill — as well as a bill that loosened certain restrictions on child labor laws for 16 and 17 year olds — to suggest he could benefit from the bill. House Democratic Whip Rachel Roberts, D-Newport, characterized Pratt talking about his business background as a signal that the bill could be self-serving.

“What I heard you say is that you filed this bill for yourself, your business and your concerns about running your business,” Roberts said.

“I resent the fact you have made the (remark) that I did it for my company,” Pratt responded. “We always will give a 10 minute break, we always will give an unpaid lunch break, and they will get to take it off. I did it because of businesses in Kentucky — to help them, not myself.”

Similar bills rolling back labor laws have been passed in several states with the help of the Florida-based conservative think tank the Foundation for Government Accountability and its lobbying arm the Opportunity Solutions Project.

The Opportunity Solutions Project contracted with McCarthy Strategic Solutions, one of the most connected Frankfort lobbying firms, to push for the bill rolling back child labor laws as well as one restricting access to SNAP benefits, according to the Legislative Ethics Commission. Pratt is featured on the foundation’s website.

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