The Origin of the Paid Coffee Break

two coffee cups on a table
A Denver court case in 1956 paved the way for paid coffee breaks. / Photo by Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash.

Paid coffee breaks weren’t always a norm for employers. In 1956, a Denver tiemaker became embroiled in a court case over his mandatory coffee breaks to boost productivity. The only problem with the practice was that he wasn’t paying employees during the mandatory breaks, violating the federal Fair Labor Standards Act according to court records from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Phil Greinetz was the owner of Los Wigwam Weavers which made neckties, mufflers and stoles with hand-operated looms. Before World War II, Greinetz employed mostly young men to do the weaving but after the men were drafted, he started employing women to do the manufacturing work. 

Greinetz “noticed that at night the women would go home and they would just be so tired, their cheeks would be sunk in. And then when some of the same women would come to work in the morning, they were still tired.” Greinetz testified that “it wasn’t very long before they broke down. First, they’d catch [a] cold, then something else happened, and, well, it was just bad all around, bad for them as well as being bad for us.” 

He talked to the workers and at their suggestion, gave employees a rest period of 15 minutes twice a day “so they could get away from the looms and relax with a soft drink or a cup of coffee,” according to court documents. The breaks were optional at first but Greinetz made them mandatory after seeing various benefits from the breaks. 

Greinetz didn’t consider the mandatory breaks part of the work day. New employees were told they wouldn’t receive pay during the breaks too, according to court records. Employees were required to leave their workstations during rest periods but, in practice, many stayed near the work floor due to the shortness of the break. The factory where the employees worked was on the third floor of a building with no elevator and only had restrooms, a table and equipment provided by the employer to make tea or coffee. In the factory district where the building was, there were also no other amenities for employees to take advantage of. 

Greinetz testified that breaks and shorter work days significantly increased productivity. The court opinion also noted the “women produced more in the six and one-half hour day than the young men employed before the war ever did in eight hours.”

The trial court found the periods weren’t compensable because the workers agreed to the unpaid breaks as conditions of their employment and had accepted the arrangement for 15 years without issue. 

The 10th Circuit needed to determine if the breaks mostly benefited the employer or the employee in this case. The court noted several cases where rulings found rest periods weren’t compensable but also noted that the rest periods in those cases were longer, giving ample time for employees to leave the premises.

“It seems to us on the undisputed facts of the case that while the fifteen minute rest periods are beneficial to the employees they are equally, if not more so, to the benefit of the employer,” the court determined. The court also noted that the breaks were first optional and later made mandatory because of the benefits Greinetz saw.

“While the trial court does not apparently place its decision on the ground that these women workers were marginal workers, it seems to have been of the view that they were marginal workers and was somewhat influenced thereby,” the court said in its 1956 opinion. Marginal workers would have been excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act. “The mere fact that these women are middle aged does not make them marginal workers. They are more efficient and do more work than either young men or middle aged men,” the court opinion stated.

The 10th Circuit ruled the employment agreement couldn’t waive the workers’ rights to statutory wages and the shortness of the breaks made them ineffective to be used for personal time.

“The benefits to the employer are so substantial that the rest periods are now mandatory and the employees may not use them if they desire to try to increase their earnings. Under all the facts and circumstances of the case, we conclude that the time in question bears a close relationship to employment and is, therefore, compensable.”

The 10th Circuit reversed the judgment and remanded the case.

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