The Regional Labour Court of Cologne (Regional Court) stated in a decision in late November 2013 that a German employer has the obligation to allocate break times of employees in an orderly manner, and presented the possible consequences of non-compliance with such obligation.

In the case under review, the German employer (a nursing home) had set up a work schedule for the night shift which, in total, included a one-hour break from work per shift per employee. However, the German employer did not allocate a certain timeframe (e.g., from 4 to 5 am) for the break times. Instead, the employees were supposed to arrange among themselves who, when and in what time intervals to take the one-hour break per shift.

The Regional Court stated in its decision that such practice does not fulfil the legal requirements of “breaks” that do not have to be compensated by the employer. Under German law, only breaks from work within the meaning of § 4 German Working Hours Act (Arbeitszeitgesetz) do not need to be compensated. Importantly, to be covered by such statute, the breaks must be determined in advance. The German employer does not meet his statutory obligation to determine the breaks if it is up to the employees to freely arrange their breaks among themselves. The reasoning behind this ruling is the risk that the employees actually might not take a break at all because they lack the employer’s consent.

In summary, even though the German employer in this case took into account a one-hour break per employee and shift, it did not determine the organization or timing of such breaks. Therefore, the breaks did not fulfill the requirements of § 4 German Working Hours Act. As a consequence, the German employer had to pay remuneration for the whole night shift (not taking into account any kind of break).

German employers should keep this decision in mind when scheduling breaks. The best option is to determine the conditions and the timing of breaks in the employment contract, or, if a works council exists, in a collective works council agreement binding upon all employees of the operation. Additionally, the German employers should control and monitor compliance with such determined break times in order to avoid unnecessary claims for remuneration.