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Courts weigh in: How to handle meal breaks not taken

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in Compensation and Benefits,Human Resources

With workforces lean, it’s important to squeeze every bit of productivity out of employees. But squeeze too hard by not providing employees with state-mandated meal or rest breaks, and you’re likely to face a lawsuit.

Two recent cases illustrate.

Case #1—Employers aren’t the meal police

In accordance with California law, an employer’s meal and rest break policy required employees to take 30-minute, unpaid meal breaks after working longer than five hours, and to take paid rest breaks after working longer than four hours. Employees signed to acknowledge the policy, which also stated that violations could result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination.

Employees brought a class-action lawsuit, contending first that they weren’t provided with their break time, and second, that their employer had to ensure that breaks were taken.

An appeals court ruled against the employees. The California Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision. Supreme Court: Under state law and wage orders, an employer must relieve the employee of all duty for the designated meal period, but need not ensure that the employee does no work. (Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court of San Diego County et al., No. S166350, Sup. Ct. Calif., 2012)

Case #2—Didn’t eat? Please tell us

Under an employer’s revised meal break policy, 30 minutes would be deducted automatically from employees’ working time as unpaid meal breaks. Employees who couldn’t eat were told to contact their supervisors; no deductions would be made from their working time.

Before the policy took effect, employees were informed of it, invited to ask questions and were required to sign and return an acknowledgment that they understood the policy.

Despite those steps, an employee sued for unpaid overtime, claiming that he couldn’t take his meal breaks and that he didn’t know that he had to inform his supervisor. Company’s defense: The automatic deductions were proper and the policy’s self-reporting provision was legal.

A federal trial court dismissed the employee’s case. Court: Automatic deductions for meal breaks aren’t illegal. What is potentially illegal, the court noted, was an employer’s failure to pay employees who work through unpaid meal breaks, and its failure to police nonexempts and their supervisors to ensure that employees who work through their meal breaks get paid. The court concluded the employer wasn’t liable because the employee presented no proof that it was aware that he didn’t take his meal breaks. (Ellis v. Commonwealth World­­wide Chauffeured Transportation of NY, LLC, No. 10-cv-1741, ED NY, 2012)

• Note: The Fair Labor Standards Act doesn’t require you to provide employees with meal breaks. It does require you to pay employees whose meal breaks last for fewer than 30 minutes and those who work through their meal breaks. On the other hand, 40 states do have laws covering meal and rest breaks. For summaries of those laws, see State laws on mandatory employee breaks. To get the full story on break laws, contact your state labor department.

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