For hourly employees, meal breaks of 30 minutes or more needn’t be paid if employees are completely relieved of their duties during the break.
Many employers automatically deduct the meal period from time worked to simplify wage-and-hour calculations. That’s fine, but you must make sure there is an easy way for employees who work through their meal breaks to report the additional paid time.
Otherwise, a class-action lawsuit action could be in your future.
Recent case: Several hourly employees at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center sued, alleging that the hospital automatically deducted 30 minutes for a meal break during a full shift, even if the employees worked during the break. They sought to represent all similarly situated employees.
The medical center argued that it did nothing wrong by deducting the time because employees who did work through the meal could easily fix their pay. All they needed to do was place a note on their time sheet. Many employees did, and the deductions were reversed quite often without any problems.
Lawyers for the employees argued that this impermissibly placed the record-keeping burden on employees instead of the employers.
The court disagreed. It said that an employer that provides a way to reverse the deduction isn’t automatically violating the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The court went on to reject collective-action certification and told the named employees they would have to prove there were times they couldn’t and didn’t get paid for working breaks. (Camesi, et al., v. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, et al., No. 09-85, WD PA, 2011)
Bottom line: Automatic deductions are fine as long as you are vigilant about making sure employees either take their breaks or get paid when they don’t.