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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 those deductions doesn’t violate the Fair Labor Standards Act, it's a dangerous practice.
    Why? Because it’s your organization’s responsibility to make sure no work is done during mealtimes. If employees sometimes work through unpaid meal breaks—even if they just pick up a phone call during the break—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, e-mail checks or going over paperwork while “brown-bagging it” at the desk. The safest approach is to require employees to log out before going to lunch or dinner. Then, check to make sure they aren’t working off-the-clock.
    A recent court ruling illustrates the danger: Brenda Ledbetter sued over her employer’s practice of automatically deducting meal periods from her time sheets. She claimed that she sometimes didn’t take a meal break and wanted to be paid for those times she worked through lunch.
    She didn’t make the claim just 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 proceed.
    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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