Who does the coffee break really serve?

photo of a full coffee mug on a table
Madeleine Fruman/Staff

Related Posts

It’s just a few minutes past 2 p.m. Most American workers — myself included — are barely halfway through the workday. I head upstairs to the break room, seeking a brief respite from the slog of my retail job. I’ve put less than full effort into my work, and tasks are starting to pile up for me to complete during the tail end of my shift.

As I make a beeline for the communal coffee pot, I’m still on the clock. Here in California, state law requires that workers are paid during their rest breaks.

Perpetually in use, the coffee machine has just finished a fresh brew. It’ll likely be empty within the hour as my coworkers and I meander in for our midday caffeine fix.

I spend the first half of my break in unsmiling solitude. But as I reach the dregs of my mug, I find myself chatting with my coworkers about our shared hobbies and bonding over our retail horror stories. When time runs out, I fill my to-go mug with what’s left in the pot, and head back down to the retail floor. The last few hours of my shift fly by in a state of focused enthusiasm, and my productivity is contagious: I’ve become a model employee.

It makes me wonder: Who does the coffee break really serve? The employee, or the employer?

The origins of the coffee break might provide some insight to this question: During World War II, a Denver-based tie manufacturing company, Los Wigwam Weavers, lost the bulk of its workers to the war effort. To fill the labor shortage, the owner, Phil Greinetz, hired elderly women to operate the company’s 20 looms. While they were good workers, they tired easily. As a solution, Greinetz offered two breaks per day and provided coffee for his workers, a substance that factory workers had relied upon to get them through their shifts since the beginning of the century. Greinetz soon noticed that the women who took the breaks were far more productive weavers than those who opted out of the coffee break. Without skipping a beat, Greinetz made the coffee break mandatory, but refused to pay the workers for their time.

When a wage-hour inspector from the U.S. Department of Labor caught wind of the unpaid yet mandatory coffee breaks, he waged a legal battle. The courts sided with the workers, and thus the paid coffee break was born.

The paid midday coffee break seems like a gift to waged laborers at surface level. But through another lens, coffee can also be seen as a tool to extract more value from workers. This is clear to those who understand the mechanism in which caffeine works in our brain to alter our consciousness and perception.

The caffeine molecule mimics adenosine, a central nervous system depressant that accumulates in the brain throughout the waking hours of our day. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors without actually activating them. This disrupts the entire system that is responsible for depressing our nervous system and causing fatigue. With adenosine receptors dormant, our brains’ most stimulating neurotransmitters, dopamine and glutamate, are free to run the show. This process gives us that revitalizing, all too familiar feeling of a midday caffeine rush.

Neurochemistry aside, it all boils down to a simple truth: Caffeinated workers are efficient workers.

The coffee break, while terribly mundane, is an extremely impactful feature of the American cultural landscape. For more than a century, coffee breaks have allowed companies to extract more value from their employees. But maybe our dependence on the molecule has allowed us to extract more value from ourselves too.

The average American of working age clocks in more than 40 hours each week. Caffeine fuels creative or athletic endeavors that exist outside of the workplace. It gives American laborers a chance at achieving personal fulfillment — at the expense, of course, of a good night’s sleep. This is the stark reality of our capitalist economic system.

Coffee allows us to exercise before our commute instead of snoozing on our alarms, or read for pleasure in the evenings instead of collapsing straight into bed. After a long week of waged labor, coffee gives us the buzz we need to write creatively, play instruments, socialize with our friends and stay awake in church.

As Micheal Pollan, researcher, author and professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, often explains, “caffeine freed us from the rhythms of the sun.” 

And the coffee break might make our working hours more enjoyable, too. Afterall, it’s one of the most social parts of our workday. Communal coffee shared at predictable intervals of the day has become ritual in workplaces all across the world. While we drudge away at different jobs and earn vastly different wages, we all turn to the same beverage and rely on the same molecule to carry us through our midshift slump. Coffee is the drink of choice for waged laborers whether they like it or not. We can all clink our mugs together in solidarity.

Between our morning brew and our workplace fix, many of us exist within a semipermanent caffeinated state. Our perception of ourselves and the world around us is stained coffee brown.

But I think I am okay with that — or maybe that’s just my caffeine addiction speaking.

If dismantling capitalism and liberating waged workers was as easy as pressing the brew button on our breakroom’s coffee maker, it would’ve been done long ago. But however the futuristic working class revolution unfolds, it will most definitely be caffeinated.

And in the meantime, I’ll be sipping a large cup o’ Joe.

Sarah Siegel is the deputy sports editor. Contact her at [email protected].