The Indignity of the Worker's Lunch Break

When I worked at a bookstore chain in Israel for minimum wage, the really annoying thing was the food break. Rather, the absence of one.

Employees wait in line for lunch at the Goldman Sachs Group cafeteria in New York, September 10, 2015.
Bloomberg

“How do you know you have a real bad job? When they give you that half-hour lunch break,” says Chris Rock in his show “Kill the Messenger.” “Whoo, there’s nothing worse than a half-hour lunch break to a grown person,” he goes on. “ By the time you put on your jacket, walk around the corner, go to the sandwich spot, order a sandwich, wait for them to make it, get on another line to pay for it, 28 minutes have passed. Now you’re rushing back to work, you’re eating your sandwich, you’re spilling beer down your shirt and when you get in, the boss got the nerve to go, hey man, you’re eight minutes late. [Expletive]! Do you realize that even criminals in jail get an hour’s lunch break? Like, can I at least eat like a murderer? I bet if I shot your ass, I could finish this sandwich.”

While Chris was rocking American audiences with his shtick, I was working at a bookstore chain in Israel, never mind which. Both of the two pay minimum wage and treat their workers like roaches. But the really annoying thing was the food break. Rather, the absence of one.

If the workday is six hours or more, Israeli law requires employers to allow manual laborers a 45-minute meal break, of which at least 30 minutes must be continuous. For other types of work, the employer can postpone the time of the break but a break for rest and eating, says the law, there must be.

Working at a bookstore isn’t defined as manual labor but it is physical, and hard. Who lugs around the boxes of books, unpacks them, puts the books on shelves, goes up and down ladders? And if there’s a quiet second in a bookstore chain, some supervisor will berate you if you dare to sit for a second to give your tired feet a break after hours of standing.

Israel’s bookstores were clearly not enamored of the institution of the “break.” We did get one. It was 20 minutes long, but we were told that they compensated us for those missing 10 minutes. Okay, when you’re making $4 an hour, it's hard to call it a great deal.

Still, what choice did we have? We needed the job, so we accepted it. Not graciously, perhaps. If I wanted a sandwich from a food chain at the mall, it was a seven-minute walk (big mall), three minutes in the queue behind starving chain workers like myself, and another 8-10 minute wait for the sandwich. So when did I have time to eat it? On the way back to the store, that’s when, trying not to choke as I swallowed on the run. Cigarette, phone call? Forget it. I’m already late and the boss is standing there tapping her watch. Even Chris Rock couldn’t make that funny.

So I decided to bring food from home, not that I had where to eat it. The back office of the store was the size of a toilet cubicle and about as inviting. It was also packed with boxes. The only place left was through the back door, which lead, as all back doors of stores do, to the garbage area.

True, the garbage of a bookstore isn’t like that of a Chinese fast-food eatery, but they throw out their trash in the same place. We sat on upside-down boxes and ate. If there were no boxes, we sat on the floor.

Garbage juice? That’s not just an expression. We ate our lunch sitting in it.

Ate, I say? Sorry, I meant gobbled. I don’t know, how but rumors of the banquets we were holding in the garbage room reached a mid-level manager at the company, a former cellphone salesman, slick as an eel and plump as a rabbit from the meals he had the leisure and luxury to eat whenever and wherever he pleased. He called us for a meeting and rebuked us thusly: “It is inappropriate for people to lay out tables with plates here. Grab something small before and something small after.” That did it. Nobody dared bring an actual meal from home after that. We began to share family-size packs of energy bars instead of food.

More than the disgraceful pay, worse than the little beefs like denying our right to pee until the shift supervisor decides we can, the most humiliating memory I retain from that workplace is the regimentation of our food consumption, devoid of logic or reason, based solely on the tyranny of the rich and their minions.

Don’t waste the boss’ time

Years passed. Now I’m a full-time newspaper editor. Eating isn’t such an issue in the newsroom or Internet work, though here, too, boundaries need to be set: I have bellowed back at superiors who chided me for leaving my desk to get water or go to the bathroom. Even now, I usually eat in front of my screen, though I could go to the kitchenette. Some of my colleagues do like I do, but many are punctilious about taking a proper meal break.

It’s harder to take meal breaks when working on Internet news sites because of the incessant pressure of breaking news. So any examples below won’t be from the press or the media.

“There are two types of people who don’t take meal breaks: Martyrs and assholes,” says blogger Tracy Moore in an article published in Jezebel called “Take Your Fucking Lunch Break.” "Martyrs want everyone to see how hard they work. Assholes are either lucky enough to love what they do so much that they simply want to keep working, relaxation be damned, or are people who are too inexperienced or weak willed to use the time. You’re all stupid: Take your fucking lunch break,” she writes, though she does admit that those who don’t, probably can’t.

The lunch break as an institution appeared in the West only in the late 19th century. The principle was that if you work, you have to eat, but do it fast so you can get back to work and stop wasting the boss’ money. Yet over a century later, it’s going out of fashion again. Research by National Public Radio in the U.S. found that only 20% of workers actually break for lunch, one reason being nonstandard working hours (9 to 5 is dead). Standard lunch break time is history. Eclectic shifts and the boss’ expectation that you’ll always be available lead people to simply chow down at their desks. And legal right or not, sometimes the lunch breaker feels like a shirker.

A 2011 study by American dietitians found that 62% of Americans eat lunch in front of the computer. Eating has lost out to meetings, chores or even responding to emails. Some forgo meals and nosh all day.

Another study, though on a mere 122 workers, found that when they eat actual lunches, by the PC or elsewhere, they take in 476 calories on average; when they nosh, they eat 3,000 calories per shift.

In high-tech, the situation, if anything, is worse. Yoav (not his real name) works at a small tech firm and notes the management’s habit of setting meetings exactly at lunchtime. Why? That’s the only free time the higher-ups have. The workers obediently attend the meetings, which may last hours, and starve. Some have the sense to nibble on a sandwich or salad during the meeting, but they do it fast and with clear discomfort.

Of course, some businesses, like the big tech companies, have proper lunch breaks, and even dining rooms and possibly catering.

Some women say they forgo lunch so they can leave earlier — pick up the kids, for instance. Some complain the bosses won’t let them exchange their lunch break for leaving earlier. It’s not a great choice in any case; it means these women start work in the morning and work through to their second job, the home, with no break at all, until the family is asleep at night. This doesn’t seem to happen much to men.

One interviewee described a former workplace that took pride in feminist values but had zero tolerance for people who ate anywhere except glued to their computer monitors. Another told of a boss who came back to work one day after a serious operation in order to impress her own bosses — what are the chances a woman that dedicated would show empathy towards a sick employee who wanted to go home, or who wanted to eat in peace? Women like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who took all of a three-day maternity leave, aren’t doing their peers any favors, they say. All they do is create irrational, inhumane expectations of full functionality when no normal human would be functioning at all.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Sure, some workplaces sanctify worker's rights and lunch breaks and some even subsidize meals, notably in finance and high-tech. But too many employers are simply confiscating the workers’ right to a proper break, openly or covertly. It all starts from the top — not with God, but the boss. The work never ends, so we sit there starving or holding in urine until our kidneys ache. The boss may not even have to threaten to replace us if we go out for a bite. Peer pressure can do it, or companies that “reward” their workers when they forgo basic rights: “You worked X hours straight? Well done — look, we ordered you a pizza!” Wow. Fattening, and our backs and heads are killing us from all those hours hunched in front of the computer. Some even get constipation and hemorrhoids from all that sitting.

If there’s hope, it’s in the employees who get up and go eat like human beings, whether in cramped kitchenettes or up to the ankles in garbage juice or out in the sunshine. If enough workers do it, ignoring the pursed lips of their disapproving colleagues and bosses, maybe we can stamp out this stupidity. And most likely, that lunch break won't bring the company to its knees in our absence.