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To Pay or Not to Pay: Rest and Meal Breaks

Our wage and hour practice attorneys are extremely knowledgeable in meal and rest break law under the FLSA. We handle these cases nationwide with our principal office located in St. Louis, Missouri. Our insight into and knowledge of the nuanced meal and rest break rules and regulations has proven invaluable to our clients.

The compensability of breaks and rest periods during the workday is a hotly litigated issue across the country. Many disputes have arisen wherein employees have claimed that they were effectively forced to work through or during unpaid breaks.

The Compensability of Rest and Meal Breaks

While most employers provide some form of unpaid or paid breaks during the workday, there is no requirement under federal law for employers to do so. Related, but distinct, considerations are at play when a dispute arises about the compensability of break periods. Generally, it is well-established that employers must pay employees for all time spent at work "from whistle to whistle." However, that's not the end of the story.

Meal Break Compensability Law

The United States Department of Labor first promulgated a regulation that provided "bona fide meal periods are not worktime…[but t]he employee must be completely relieved from duty for purposes of eating regular meals….[and t]he employee is not relieved if he is required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating." 29 C.F.R. § 785.19 (noting that "[o]rdinarily 30 minutes or more is long enough for a bona fide meal period" but that "[b]ona fide meal periods do not include coffee breaks or time for snacks. These are rest periods"). This regulation resulted in a legal standard that, for employers to avoid having to pay employees during meal breaks, employees must be "completely relieved" from any active or inactive duties.

But, over time, most federal courts moved away from this legal standard. See, e.g., Henson v. Pulaski Cty. Sheriff Dept., 6 F.3d 531, 534-35 (8th Cir. 1993). Most federal courts have instead adopted some version of what has become known as the "predominant benefit" test. Id. Under that test, the standard question is whether the meal break was "spent predominantly for the benefit of the employer"—that is, "a question dependent upon all the circumstances of the case." Id. This standard "allows courts to consider different factors depending on the nature of the business involved." Id.

Even under this "predominant benefit" standard, courts continue to vary quite a bit in how they treat and analyze unpaid meal break claims. Some courts have emphasized the employer's statutory duty to make and maintain accurate record of hours worked in the context of questions about what, if any, time was spent during a break for the benefit of the employer. See, e.g., Reich v. Southern New England Telecomm. Corp., 121 F.3d 58, 66-68 (2d Cir. 1997).

In Reich, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's finding that a group of employees made out a prima facie case of unpaid meal breaks based on the employer's meal break policies and representational evidence of unpaid work during meal breaks. Id. at 68. The Court rejected the employer's claim that the district court erred in not making detailed findings on the nature and extent of interrupted or shortened meal periods. Id. at 69. In doing so, the Court emphasized the employer's statutory duty to make and maintain accurate record of when work was performed, including during meal breaks. See id. Because the employer did not make and maintain such records, the employees needed "only to prove that they performed work for which they were not properly compensated and produce 'sufficient evidence to show the amount and extent of that work as a matter of just and reasonable inference." Id. Facing "over-inclusive" evidence from the employees on the amount and extent of unpaid work, and "under-inclusive" evidence on the same from the employer, the district court sided with the employees. Id. at 70. On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed the district court, finding no error and noting that, while "the award might have been somewhat generous…[i]t simply points out the difficulty of precisely determining damages when the employer has failed to keep adequate records." Id. at 70, n. 3; see also Hamelin v. Faxton-St. Luke's Healthcare, 274 F.R.D. 385, 398 (N.D.N.Y. 2011) (certifying class action on claims of unpaid meal breaks due to automatic meal break deductions and policies).

Notwithstanding variances in how courts view and analyze these cases, it appears to be clear that the mere existence of a policy requiring an employee to inform management of a missed break does not relieve an employer from its obligation to provide compensation for that time. Nearly all courts (and the Department of Labor) seem to agree on the following principles: it is the duty of management to exercise its control and see that the work is not performed if it does not want it to be performed. Employers cannot sit back and accept the benefits without compensating for them. The mere promulgation of a rule against such work is not enough. Management has the power to enforce the rule and must make every effort to do so.

Contact Specialized Wage and Hour Counsel

Please do not hesitate to contact our firm directly to gain more information and understanding about FLSA and state law rest and meal break rules, requirements and considerations. Our Firm can be reached at 314-645-4100 or by email at kevin@dolleylaw.com.

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The Law Offices of Kevin J. Dolley represents clients in labor law, employment law and employment discrimination matters throughout the State of Missouri, including St. Louis, St. Louis County, St. Charles County, Boone County, Jefferson County, Lincoln County, Jackson County, Phelps County, Franklin County, Ste. Genevieve, St. Clair and the Cities of St. Louis, Kansas City, St. Charles, O'Fallon, Lake St. Louis, Hillsboro, Troy, Clayton, Rolla, Columbia, Jefferson City, Kirksville, Farmington, Cuba, Augusta, Union, Maryland Heights, Cape Girardeau and Springfield.
Law Offices of Kevin J. Dolley, LLC - Missouri Employment Lawyer
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