The Rightness of Right

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In the early 1990s, I worked at a large poultry company. The company was large, not the poultry. Never mind, the poultry was large too. During an hour break, a discussion emerged about mandatory breaks at work. Someone said they’d prefer to only get thirty minutes. Another said, “They have to give us an hour. It’s the law.”

Previously, I had been caught up in a web or absolute corruption and stupidity at another employer. They did everything wrong. They learned the hard way. I learned it was never worth it to stick your neck out. I’ve forgotten the lesson a couple of times since then. The universe reminds me forcefully.

I said, “Look, it sounds wrong, but for the most part, employers don’t have to give us breaks at all, with a few strict exceptions.” Everyone howled in derision at me. After a few minutes, the second-in-command for the entire 1000+ facility said, “You’re wrong. We have to ____________.” (You can fill in the blank. It doesn’t matter what he said because he was wrong.) Again, this guy was second in charge of the entire facility and it was part of the largest private company in the world at the time. He was in the break room with a couple of line supervisors and heard the conversation become more heated.

His lack of information didn’t surprise me. It was common, and I’d had the conversation at least 100 times over the years. Whether it was the person cleaning the bathrooms or the CEO, I didn’t care.

“Boss, you’re wrong. You can write the State of Arkansas if you want, but I’ll bet you $100 to $1 you’re wrong.” He got a little angry. The break room was packed and several people heard me throw down the gauntlet. A few brave souls egged it on. I turned to everyone and said, “I’ll bet all of you $100-to-$1 you’re wrong, too.” To soften the issue, I said something like, “It’s easy to be wrong. A lot of people have simply been told the wrong thing so many times that it sounds true.”

That evening, I sat and wrote two letters and mailed them off. A few days later, the boss found me privately and said, “You were right! We’re not required to even give you guys 30 minutes break.” He explained that he had reached out to several people and had been shocked to find out I was right. He was peevish about the entire mess. “Can you imagine if I went out and told everyone we’re no longer giving ANY breaks?” He laughed.

I walked out of the office, laughing. I said nothing to my co-workers. About a week later, I received another letter from the State of Arkansas, explaining that “no,” employers didn’t have to provide breaks based on length of shift.

I took the letter in and during our hour lunch break; I showed the letter to the loudest group of people who had bet me. “No way!” and “You faked this letter!” were thrown at me. “I know for a fact that the Labor Board has laws,” and so forth were shouted. I just kept saying, “You are all wrong.”

Five minutes later, someone had found the boss who had contradicted me.

Everyone was shouting at me, waiting to see me eat crow.

“X is right. There is no law that requires us to give you a break at all, much less thirty minutes or an hour, not here in Arkansas.”

I’m pretty sure I heard 15 jaws hit the concrete floor. The break room was silent as everyone stared at the boss. He refused further comment and just walked away.

My boss was unhappy I brought the letter to work and not pleased that I made him eat a little crow. A bit of his chagrin was also because employers really didn’t appreciate workers knowing the rules.

Fast forward a few years. I was taking a great Human Resources class at NWACC, the community college. I had a presentation about my experience at my previous employers and the misunderstanding with the bosses. Several classmates critiqued me afterward and told me I was wrong. I repeated my assertion that they were wrong. Even the professor, who I adored, chimed in and said I was wrong. I remember stopping and saying, “Why in the world would I do a presentation with cited sources about something that is demonstrably not true?” I didn’t get an answer.

I still had letters in my filing cabinet at home to prove they were all wrong. Because I was trapped in class without proof – and being accosted by people who were pissed I insisted they were all wrong – I told them who to contact to find out that were all mistaken. I told them that I didn’t want an apology afterward but would instead like to be given the benefit of the doubt for all future issues wherein someone was being accused of being mistaken. They all agreed.

Next week, the professor opened the class by giving an apology. She had followed up with multiple sources. A couple of sources she contacted simply because she couldn’t believe she had been so breathtakingly wrong about the issue, for so many years. She told the class directly that my presentation was accurate. I had my letter in my folder since the previous week. I was going to do another presentation for extra-credit without giving away the subject had it not been brought up before I had the chance. I pulled out the letter. It was dated from my time at my last employer.

I used to keep it in the same file as the warning ticket I got from the Johnson Police for driving too fast. On a bicycle. That story is true, too.

Because of the revelation that everyone is often wrong, I did my next presentation on several other issues that people just always got wrong, no matter who often they were told otherwise. This time, no one doubted that I might be right. They still checked, in hopes of catching me in the wrong.

Even now, there will be people who’ve read this far who will have it in their heads that I’m wrong. And that amuses me.

Just as people think their employer can tell them they can’t discuss their wages, there are many people who have the erroneous idea that most employers have to give us breaks. (Using the traditional system – not access to bathrooms, medication, etc.)

I’m speaking generally here. Also, I’m not making the argument that employers can’t violate the spirit or letter of the laws regarding pay discussion – or any other law. That’s not the point. Someone always chimes in and makes it even when I point out that it isn’t the issue at question.

This post didn’t start with the goal of being about mandatory breaks. It’s about certainty and the pitfalls it presents.

We’re all guilty of it. This story presents me in a favorable light. I’ve written other stories that prove I can sometimes get both feet in my mouth simultaneously if motivated.

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