Parsons Electric was part of a multiemployer collective bargaining agreement that was silent on the subject of employee breaks. Independent of the union contract, Parsons, for years, maintained a written policy that provided hourly employees with a 15-minute break in the morning and a 15-minute break in the afternoon each workday. Parsons then replaced the break policy with a statement that it would abide by applicable bargaining agreements, but reserved the right “in the absence of specific provisions for breaks in the collective bargaining agreement” to establish break policies. Parsons then stopped its practice of 15-minute breaks in the morning and afternoon.
Since employee breaks are terms and conditions of employment, bargaining over changing breaks is probable. But, a unilateral change to a collective bargaining agreement only violates the National Labor Relations Act if it is “material, substantial, and significant.” Parsons argued unsuccessfully that its change did not meet this test. According to the Eighth Circuit, the prior policy gave employees a “specific, concrete standard” for breaks and any managerial deviation from that policy was “an exception to the default rule.” The new policy eliminated the default rule and gave Parsons “unfettered discretion to determine whether employee breaks would be permitted at all….” This, according to the Court, was significant enough of a unilateral change to violate the Act.