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Court clears up confusion over meal breaks

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in Human Resources

Do you have to provide employees who work eight hours or more during a shift with an unpaid meal break away from all job responsibilities? Or can you continue to pay employees while they eat, expecting them to take calls or respond to work needs?

A federal court considering both the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and its Minnesota equivalent has concluded employers don’t have to provide a meal break away from all work responsibilities.

Instead, employers can elect to pay for the time it takes to eat. In fact, paying for meal breaks may be the best way to avoid later FLSA lawsuits concerning unpaid breaks that are interrupted by work.

Here’s how it works: If you make employees clock out for their 30-minute meals, you have to make absolutely sure that they don’t do any work during the meal breaks. Otherwise, they could sue for unpaid time. But if you let them take their breaks as part of their paid eight-hour workdays, it doesn’t matter if their meal breaks are interrupted by work. Plus, they won’t be able to come back and sue for the unpaid hours—since the time was paid.

Employers have been confused about this issue for years because the FLSA mentions a “bona fide” meal break as one that is unpaid and during which the employee does absolutely no work. Minnesota’s FLSA says that employers are required to “permit” a meal break to an employee working eight hours or more in a day. The question then became whether Minnesota law required a bona fide meal break or just paid time to eat.

Recent case: An employer fired Matthew Bolin and two co-workers from their jobs in a pressroom. They sued, alleging among other claims that they had not received meal breaks that relieved them from work duties. The court rejected that claim. It said that neither the federal FLSA nor the state wage-and-hour law required meal breaks that are completely relieved from duty. (Bolin, et al., v. Japs-Olson Company, No. 06-3574, DC MN, 2008)

Final note:
While Minnesota’s law does require employers to “permit” employees to eat during a shift of eight or more hours, it does not require them to be relieved of all duties while eating. The bottom line is that Minnesota employees must get a chance to eat—but if the time is paid, there is no need to completely relieve them from duties.

Example: Assume a secretary works an eight-hour shift and you pay her for the entire time. She is permitted to eat from noon until 12:30. If she eats at her desk and answers a phone call, she has not been relieved of all duties. If you did not pay for her lunch break, you would be in violation of both the state and federal FLSA. But since you are paying her, answering the phone call isn’t a problem. 

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