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Smoke Breaks vs. Cell Phone Breaks: Industry Double Standard?

Posted on Jul 13 2017

It is a common utterance by those who’ve worked in restaurants: “I started smoking just so I could get a break;” and just as frequently, restaurant staff often complain that they may not use their cell phones during their shift. What’s astonishing about this is that non-smokers are not honored with fresh-air breaks, specifically in states that do not regulate labor. It is often argued that even in states where employers are required to grant a paid break, smokers are still granted longer or more frequent breaks than non-smokers. Whether the claim is legitimate seems to depend on the employer. Nevertheless, this is happening in more places than one; why is this the case?

Let’s assume a restaurant tells its employees that they will not be granted breaks of any kind - meals, smokes, fresh air, or to check their phones. The only argument for which this might even remotely make sense is if the employer is claiming that staff should remain productive and their attention undivided. We can all agree that cell phone use can create overwhelming distraction. But looking more closely, we also know that breaks have proven to increase productivity and morale, if taken every few hours, and especially for people who are on their feet and otherwise physically engaged for extended periods of time. Many restaurants offer their employees a shift meal, which is also likely to reduce stress by satisfying their appetites as well as improving morale and fueling the staff. Happy servers make happy customers! So why, then, is it frowned upon for staff to take breaks that involve non-smoking activities, as if they are “wasting time?”

Restaurant owners agree that food service is a high-stress, multi-tasking, time-management cocktail, so it makes sense for restaurants that don’t offer shift meals to allow smokers to take breaks, because smoking soothes addiction cravings, helps smokers manage stress, curbs the appetite and doesn’t cost the restaurant any money. But for those who don’t smoke, there is no respite. A smoke-break is excusable by virtue of addiction, but taking a fresh-air breather, or checking one’s phone is considered an abuse of the designated break.

It becomes overwhelmingly apparent that food service is among some of the lowest-paid, most stressful, un-stable work and is a threat to one’s health to a point of enabling unhealthy behaviors. It would seem cell phone distractions are hardly an issue by comparison.

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