Spread the word that' breaks and meal times should be used for those purposes, not for work. And put the policy in writing. That may force you to juggle your staffing to ensure proper coverage, but it's cheaper than paying back pay, overtime and penalties after a lawsuit.
The Fair Labor Standards Act () says you aren't required to pay nonexempt employees for time they spend on bona fide meal periods, as long as the employees are "completely relieved of duty." Courts have softened that standard by ruling that if employees spend their break time "predominantly" for their own benefit, your organization doesn't need to pay for that time. But a recent ruling shows that the reverse is true, too.
Recent case: Nurses at an Oklahoma hospital were regularly interrupted during their meal breaks. Some watched patient monitors and responded to problems. Others answered phones, responded to pages and stayed on the patient floor. The hospital didn't pay those nonexempt, hourly employees for their meal breaks, even if they spent most of their break doing work.
The employees sued, claiming the FLSA entitled them to overtime for those working-during-break hours. While a lower court sided with the hospital, a federal appeals court reversed and sent the case to trial. The hospital must pay for the nurses' meal breaks if the "degree of interruption caused [the nurses] to spend their meal periods primarily for Hillcrest's benefit," the court said. (Beasley v. Hillcrest Med. Ctr., No. 02-5121, 10th Cir., 2003)
Rule of thumb: The more interruptions that occur, the more likely a court will find that the break was spent predominantly for the organization's benefit, making the time payable. So if you call an employee to work for whatever reason during a break, consider it as work time, and pay for it.
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