The Right to a Break Is Just One of the Worker Freedoms on the Line

Republished from Kentucky Center for Economic Policy

Lawmakers in Frankfort set off a firestorm last week when they passed House Bill (HB) 500 through committee, legislation that would eliminate lunch and rest breaks in Kentucky. The bill would also take away compensation for travel time between work sites and end overtime pay for the seventh consecutive day of work.

The response from working people across Kentucky was swift and angry. On social media, disbelief in “how they could do this” was mixed with puzzlement as to why someone would want to and outrage that anyone would try.

HB 500 struck a chord because it snatches away a basic dignity necessary to tolerate what many Kentucky workers face every day: physically demanding, low-paying and frustrating jobs. A break is a chance to check in on loved ones, have a smoke, say a prayer or fill an empty stomach. It’s needed to clear the mind and restore — even if just for a moment — some humanity.

Work breaks are a freedom no one should have to defend. But HB 500 is moving through the legislature because it is part of a well-funded and coordinated national effort to roll back laws aimed at protecting workers.

Another such bill is HB 255, which would eliminate child labor protections that keep high school students from working third shift and in hazardous jobs. That bill will put more kids in harm’s way and undermine the jobs adults can get by helping employers hire lower-paid, easier-to-exploit children.

An additional anti-worker bill is HB 465, which creates a new second-class employment tier that allows employers to pick and choose which benefits to pay their workforce without providing all of the rights, benefits and protections associated with employment. It will encourage employers to misclassify more workers as independent contractors, leaving them with lower pay and greater risk.

Similar bills are being introduced around the country and are written by billionaire-funded think tanks and corporate special interests. One such group is the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), which helped pass a 2022 bill in Kentucky that dramatically reduced the weeks of unemployment benefits available to laid-off workers.

FGA is also pushing HB 367, a bill this session that would take SNAP food assistance from 65,000 Kentuckians, including 21,400 children. The bill would cut the income eligibility for food aid to exclude thousands of low-wage workers, and result in others losing assistance for failure to meet burdensome reporting requirements in rural counties with high unemployment. Many other workers would lose help with their groceries because they’ve managed to set aside a few thousand dollars from their modest paychecks to buy a car.

When it comes to worker protections, special interest groups are trying to clear out every state rule that exceeds the modest limits in the Fair Labor Standards Act, an 86-year-old federal law that has never been updated. And these same groups are also going after that law, pursuing litigation in front of the U. S. Supreme Court that — if successful — will kneecap the enforcement ability of the U. S. Department of Labor.

If they get what they want, it will be the wild west for workers in states like Kentucky. Employers will be able to exploit without restraint, and workers will lack hard-won protections that have stood for nearly a century.

Let’s hope HB 500 is a wakeup call for Kentucky workers. Basic freedoms are on the line. Wealthy interests with too much money and power already are hungry for more of what you have.

This column was published in the Lexington Herald Leader on March 5.

The post The Right to a Break Is Just One of the Worker Freedoms on the Line appeared first on Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

Republished from Kentucky Center for Economic Policy