Automatic pay deduction for lunch breaks: Is it legal?

Updated September 17, 2019

For hourly employees, you don’t have to pay them for lunch breaks of 30 minutes or more, as long as the employee is completely relieved of his or her duties during the break.

To simplify wage-and-hour calculations, many employers automatically de­­duct lunch, or the meal period, from time worked.

That’s legal. But, as this case shows, you must make sure there’s an easy way for employees who occasionally work through their lunch breaks to report the additional paid time. Otherwise, you could be paid back with a class-action lawsuit.

Recent case: Several hourly em­­ployees at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center sued, alleging the hos­­pital automatically deducted 30 minutes for meal breaks, even if em­­ployees worked during the breaks.

Payroll Handbook D

The em­­ployees sought to take the case to a class-action status.

The medical center argued that it did nothing wrong 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.

The employees’ lawyers argued that this impermissibly placed the record-keeping burden on employees, not employers. The court disagreed. It said that employers that provide a way to reverse the deduction aren’t automatically violating the Fair Labor Standards Act. (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.

Another way to legally protect yourself: Require employees to affirmatively state—say, by checking a box on a time sheet—whether meal periods are taken or missed.

Resources: Rest, meal breaks