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Keep staff on site, but off clock, during meals

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Corrections officers in Pima County, Ariz., couldn't run out to Burger King at lunch. During their half-hour lunch break, they were relieved of their duties but still had to stay on the premises, remain in uniform, carry radios and respond to emergencies. They were also subject to interruptions from inmates, visitors and fellow employees.

Arguing that they should be paid for these lunch breaks, the officers sued for unpaid overtime. But a state court turned them down. The reason: While some officers performed work during some meal periods, that doesn't mean all meal periods should be considered "work time."

The court said officers were not predominantly engaged in work activities during meal breaks. Instead, they primarily spent the meal periods eating and relaxing. (Hahn v. Pima County, No. CA-CV 00-0200, Ariz. Sup. Ct., 2001)

Advice: Ordinarily, a meal period is not considered work time as long as it's:


  • 30 minutes or longer.



  • Not frequently interrupted by work. Most federal courts have adopted the "predominant benefit" test, wherein meal periods are considered work time only if the employee predominantly spends the time for the employer's benefit. Some courts apply a more rigid test, however, requiring the employee to be completely relieved of duty.




If you want to avoid paying for meal breaks, your safest move is to go with the second test, completely relieve employees of their duties. You can require workers to stay on the premises. But if factory or office workers have to eat at their machines or desks, the lunch period must be treated as work time.

Note: Federal law doesn't require you to offer rest or meal breaks to workers over age 18, but nearly half the states do. To find out what your state says, visit www.dol. gov/dol/esa/public/programs/whd/state/meal.htm.

Finally, you'd be wise to get acquainted quickly with pay laws for meal times. Overtime lawsuits are booming.

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