The COVID-19 pandemic has changed dining habits across the world, as governments have shut down and restricted indoor and outdoor dining.  Even where restrictions have eased, many avoid sit-down dining out of concern for COVID-19 exposure and rely on take-away for their restaurant meals.  Clearly, the COVID-19 pandemic has limited dining options.

France, however, has decided to provide workers with a new, previously forbidden, dining option, although it remains to be seen how palatable it will be to French employees.  The Labor Ministry has decreed that to contain the spread of COVID-19, French workers now may eat lunch at their desks, which prior to the pandemic, Article R.4428-19 of the French Labor Code prohibited.

Gathering around a table for lunch with friends and colleagues has been long-standing French tradition, reflecting the country’s customs, habits and tastes.  The decree is intended to allow workers to return to the workplace and still limit the spread of COVID-19, by permitting them to lunch alone at their own workspace.  Until now, employers that allowed employees to eat lunch at their desks were subject to a fine, if caught, and employees who ate at their desks faced unspecified disciplinary action.

The French government has long been active in imposing regulations to prevent employers from exploiting their workers and in protecting workers’ rights, such as by imposing a 35-hour workweek, implementing the “right to disconnect” and mandating lunch hours.  Workers have become accustomed to dining out for lunch, and traditionally consider this time away from their work stations as an opportunity to refresh their bodies and minds prior to returning to work for the afternoon.  This simply is part of the French concept of maintaining a proper work-life balance.

While the French government continues to encourage remote work wherever possible, the new measure reflects the government’s effort to encourage businesses to reopen, where they can, with measures in place that will protect employees’ workplace health and safety.  Allowing workers to eat lunch at their desks offers workers and their employers a safer dining option, though arguably at the expense of traditional French cultural norms.  It is yet another example of how the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged, and changed, customary workplace standards.