Can employers meet rest break entitlements by adding up shorter breaks?

Under the Working Time Regulations, adult workers have a right to a minimum 20 minute rest break where their shift lasts for more than six hours. Certain workers are exempt from this entitlement, such as rail workers who are responsible for monitoring train timetables, however these workers remain entitled to “an equivalent period of compensatory rest”.

In Crawford v Network Rail Infrastructure Ltd, a relief cover signalman worked in single manned signal boxes in the South East. His role required him to continuously monitor trains during eight hour shifts whilst remaining on-call at all times to carry out any additional activities. At times, the employee was not very busy so he could take a number of short breaks away from his workstation. Over the course of eight hours, these short breaks would add up to more than 20 minutes but the employee was not always able to take a continuous 20 minute break during his day shift.

The organisation had an internal document which set out rest break entitlements for signalling and crossing keeper employees. The document stated employees should take “naturally occurring breaks” when the opportunity arose at single manned locations. It also stated employees could take their 20 minute rest break by adding up shorter breaks over a period of 3-4 hours, so long as there was at least one longer break which allowed the worker to take refreshments and meet personal needs.

A grievance was raised by the employee for a failure to allow him to exercise his entitlement to a continuous 20 minute rest break under the Working Time Regulations. The grievance was dismissed and an appeal against this decision was unsuccessful. The employee brought a tribunal claim.

The employment tribunal dismissed the claim as the employee was exempt from the entitlement to a minimum rest break. They found the employer had met their obligation to provide compensatory rest by allowing, and actively encouraging, the employee to take rest breaks over the course of his work shift.

On appeal, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) determined the employer’s policy of adding up shorter breaks to total 20 minutes was inconsistent with the Working Time Regulations. Compensatory rest for on-call workers has to be a break from work lasting at least 20 minutes for this to be deemed “an equivalent period”. As the overall length of the break has to total 20 minutes, employers are unable to aggregate shorter breaks to meet worker’s rights under the Regulations.

What this means for employers:

  • This decision confirms workers have to receive a rest break lasting a continuous period of 20 minutes, or a continuous 20 minute period of compensatory rest, to be awarded their rights under the Working Time Regulations.
  • Employers are unable to add up shorter breaks to meet this right. Where employers follow this practice, they need to examine their working practices to assess whether workers have an opportunity to take a continuous 20-minute rest break. If not, alternatives may need to be considered such as providing relief cover to allow the worker to take their minimum rest break.

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