Automatic deductions for mealtime: Legal, but dangerous

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in Human Resources

Take note if you automatically deduct meal periods from your hourly employees’ total hours worked: Although making that deduction isn’t technically illegal and doesn’t by itself violate the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), it is a dangerous practice.

Why? Because it’s the organization’s responsibility to make sure no work is done during meals. If employees sometimes work through their unpaid meal break—even if they just pick up a few phone calls during the hour—you’ll owe them for that time.

That’s because the U.S. Labor Department says you must pay for mealtimes unless the employee is “completely relieved” of his or her duties and not required to perform any work on the employer’s behalf during that time. That means no phone calls, no e-mail checks, no going over paperwork while brown-bagging lunch at the desk.

The safest approach is to require employees to check or log out before going to lunch or dinner. Then, spot-check to make sure they aren’t working off the clock.

Recent case: Brenda Ledbetter sued over her employer’s practice of automatically deducting meal periods from her time sheets. She claimed that she sometimes didn’t get around to actually taking a meal break. She wanted to be paid for those times she worked through lunch.

She didn’t just make the claim on her own behalf; she asked the court to include every hourly employee at the company in the lawsuit.

The court refused to go that far. But it did allow Ledbetter’s lawsuit to go forward. If she can prove she worked during her meals, the company may owe her back pay, plus double damages and attorneys’ fees. (Ledbetter v. Pruitt Corporation, No. 5:05-CV-329, MD GA, 2007)  

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