Labor and Employment Law

When Are Meal Periods Compensable?

 by Joseph U. Leonoro 

As we have highlighted previously on this blog, employers have faced an onslaught of wage-and-hour litigation in recent years. Many of those cases have been filed as class or collective actions on behalf of hundreds and even thousands of plaintiff-employees. Most of these cases allege that employees have not been compensated for overtime hours worked as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).

In Ruffin v. Motorcity Casino, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit – which is the federal appeals court for Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee – recently addressed whether meal periods were compensable. The plaintiffs, who worked as security guards at a casino, argued that their 30-minute meal periods were compensable and should have counted towards overtime because they were not allowed to leave the casino and were required to monitor their two-way radios while on their breaks.

Generally, meal periods will not count as hours worked if certain conditions are satisfied. Although there is no uniform test among the federal courts, there are three key factors that determine whether a meal period is compensable.

The first factor considers whether the employee is engaged in performance of any substantial duties during the meal period. In some situations, readiness to serve or waiting for something to happen are sufficient to be considered a substantial duty. The key inquiry is whether an employee is required to give up a substantial measure of his time and effort. In Ruffin, the employees argued that they performed a substantial duty because they were required to monitor their two-ways radios. The Sixth Circuit disagreed. It noted that monitoring a radio is usually a peripheral activity that can be performed while the employee spends her meal period as she sees fit.

A second factor examines whether the employer’s business regularly interrupts the employee’s meal period. In Ruffin, the court found that this factor easily weighed in favor of finding the meal period was not compensable. One employee testified that her meal period was never interrupted by emergency calls. A second employee testified that only one meal period was interrupted during her ten years of employment. A third employee testified that fewer than ten meal periods were interrupted during a span of eight years.

A third factor considers whether employees are allowed to leave the employer’s premises during the meal period. Merely requiring employees to remain on the premises does not convert a meal period to a compensable work period. The focus is not on whether the employees must remain on the premises, but is on what work the employees are required to perform. In Ruffin, the court found that although the employees were required to remain on the employer’s premises during the meal period, this factor weighed in favor of the employer because employees spent their meal periods eating, socializing, reading, surfing the internet, and attending to personal business. A similar conclusion was reached in another recent case out of Pennsylvania, Bosler v. Bio-Medical Applications of Pennsylvania, where a judge rejected class claims brought of a group of employees arguing that their 30 minute meal period was really compensable time because they were not permitted to leave the premises.

Each of the three factors focuses on the amount of freedom an employee has during the meal period. The more freedom the employee has, the more likely it is that the meal period is not compensable work time. In addition to the amount of freedom an employee is given, the amount of time an employee has for the meal period is also a relevant consideration. Typically, meal periods should be at least 30 minutes, if they are non-compensable. There are exceptions where courts have found shorter durations to be acceptable.

We close with one further consideration for employers confronted with this issue. Some states and local governments have enacted their own rules relating to meal periods and rest periods. Employers must comply with those rules in addition to the FLSA’s overtime requirements, and often those rules are different (and/or more stringent) than what the FLSA demands. Don’t forget that as you work to keep your organization in compliance.

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