Tell bosses to tell staff: No working lunches! — Business Management Daily: Free Reports on Human Resources, Employment Law, Office Management, Office Communication, Office Technology and Small Business Tax Business Management Daily

Tell bosses to tell staff: No working lunches!

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Like most employers, you probably have a rule that tells nonexempt employees they must take their meal breaks. The rule is there to prevent Fair Labor Standards Act violations for uncompensated work.

But having the rule isn’t always enough—especially if some of your supervisors encourage employees to work during their breaks or turn a blind eye when they do. It’s happening more and more during the recession, as a dwindling amount of employees struggle with an increasing workload.

Recent case: Angela Valcho worked as a nurse in a hospital’s neonatal unit. She was originally classified as exempt, but the hospital made her a nonexempt hourly employee.

Nonexempt employees handled meal breaks by clocking in and out, and the system automatically subtracted 30 minutes of break time. Supervisors told employees not to work during their meal breaks, and warned them that if they did, they had to report it to their supervisors so the recorded time was correct.

The reality, however, was different. In fact, Valcho carried a pager during her breaks, which often summoned her for duty on the infant resuscitation team.

Valcho sued for unpaid overtime. In court, she claimed her supervisors regularly interrupted her breaks, cutting them short. The hospital said she never reported to anyone that she worked through meals.

The court said Valcho had a claim for unpaid meal times during weeks she worked more than 40 hours. It did not matter that she wasn’t supposed to work if her supervisors ignored the rule. If supervisors knew (and possibly condoned or encouraged) the work, the hospital couldn’t claim ignorance. (Valcho v. Dallas County Hospital District, No. 3:07-CV-1853, ND TX, 2009)

Advice: Wage-and-hour law is complex. Review your practices regularly.

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