The Tennessee General Assembly recently amended the state’s meal and rest break law to require meal breaks for tipped employees in the food and beverage industry. Fortunately, the new law also allows tipped employees to waive their right to meal breaks as long as employers follow a very specific process.

Under Tennessee law, employers must grant employees a 30-minute unpaid meal break unless the nature of the business provides “ample opportunity [for employees] to take an appropriate meal break.” Before the recent amendment, Tennessee employers in the food and beverage industry were not obligated to grant rest breaks to their tipped employees. In the interest of providing regulatory guidance to employers in the industry, the Tennessee Department of Labor determined that waiters and waitresses fall within the exception to the meal break requirement because, by the nature of the business in which they work, there is ample opportunity to take a meal break. As a result of the Tennessee DOL’s guidance, employers in the food and beverage industry were able to avoid disruptions in service caused by meal breaks and provide the uninterrupted attention that is vital to customer satisfaction.

The recent amendment, however, supersedes the Tennessee DOL’s guidance and requires employers in the industry to provide meal breaks to all tipped employees in the service of food or beverages to customers. Realizing that unpaid meal breaks may be unpopular in the industry, the Tennessee General Assembly inserted a provision in the new law that allows tipped employees to waive their rights to unpaid meal breaks by signing a waiver request form. To obtain a valid meal break waiver, an employer must develop a waiver request form that acknowledges an employee’s right to an unpaid meal break and allows the employee to knowingly and voluntarily waive that right. In addition to providing a valid waiver request form, the employer also must post in at least one conspicuous place in the workplace a reasonable policy that permits employees to waive their meal breaks subject to the demands of the work environment. The employer’s meal break waiver policy must contain the employer’s waiver form, must identify the length of time the waiver will be effective, and outline the procedure for rescinding the waiver agreement. For a waiver to be valid, the employee must submit the waiver request knowingly and voluntarily and both the employer and employee must consent to the waiver. In other words, the employer cannot coerce the employee into waiving a meal break.

The amendments become effective on May 16, 2012, and directly and significantly impact industry employers whose tipped employees may wish to waive their rights to meal breaks.