Failure to Follow Labor Laws Governing Compensation for Employee Breaks Can Be Costly

A question from employers that continues to arise from time to time is whether federal or state law mandates lunch breaks for employees. Neither does, a fact that could come as a surprise to many employees who consider lunch breaks a right to which they are legally entitled.

While lunch breaks are not required, certain rules come into play when lunch breaks are provided, as most employers do. While state regulations permit “time allowed for meals” not to be compensated, no minimum time requirement is provided.   The U.S. Department of Labor, however, generally considers a break a non-compensable “meal period” when it lasts at least 30 minutes.  Counsel for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry confirmed that it follows the federal standard in this regard.

In addition to the 30-minute minimum requirement, employees must not be engaged in work duties during their meal breaks in order not to be compensated. To ensure this is the case and help avoid subsequent salary claims, many employers require employees to take their lunch breaks away from their desks.

Not following the rules can lead to costly consequences for employers. In a recent case the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed that Wal-Mart must pay $188 million to Pennsylvania employees whose rest breaks were improperly cut and who were not properly compensated for “off-the-clock” work over an eight-year period.  The case involved about 188,000 former Wal-Mart employees and found that the company violated the written policies in its own handbook by denying the breaks and wage payments.

In a recent Third Circuit Court decision regarding meal time and compensation standards, a split court ruled that the FLSA does not mandate that Butler County, PA corrections officers must be compensated for 15 minutes of their one-hour lunch period. The officers’ collective bargaining agreement includes a provision that 45 minutes of their lunch break is paid and 15 minutes is unpaid.  The officers maintained that because they are required to remain on call in case of an emergency during their meal breaks they should be compensated for the entire hour.

The requirement that they remain on call prevents the officers from leaving the prison during meal times and therefore, the officers argued, they are entitled to compensation for the entire meal break under the FLSA. This argument may resonate with other workers in Pennsylvania who are required to stay at their places of employment during their lunch breaks and thus prevented from using that time freely.  However, the court held that the officers received the “predominant benefit” of the meal break and thus were not entitled to compensation for the 15-minute portion that they contested. While collective bargaining agreements cannot trump the FLSA, the court held they can be a relevant factor for a court to consider when determining whether time is compensable or not.

There is also a general carve-out with regard to minors. Specifically, employees between the ages of 14 and 17 are entitled to a break of at least 30 minutes for every 5 consecutive hours they work under Pennsylvania law.  This mandate likely most affects employers who hire high school students during the summer, but must be considered by all employers who hire workers in this age group.

By fully investigating the rights and duties that are granted and owed under the FLSA and state labor laws, employers can work to prevent miscommunication with their employees and potentially expensive litigation. For more information about what you must do to comply with labor laws please contact the attorneys at Nauman Smith.

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