Labor: Are your meal break practices lawful?

Interrupted employee meal breaks could cost you under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Are your company’s meal break practices lawful? If not, here is a hypothetical example of what it could cost you for employees earning $10 per hour who fail to receive an uninterrupted 30-minute meal break on 60 separate days:

  • 30 minutes x 60 days (during two‑year period) = 30 hours x $15 (overtime rate) = $450    
  • $450 x 2 (liquidated damages) = $900
  • $900 x 200 employees = $180,000 back pay liability

Wage and hour lawsuits and collective actions have spiked during the last several years with complaints of off-the-clock work leading the way. In the Northeast, a number of Fair Labor Standards Act lawsuits have been filed targeting the health care industry for allegedly using automatic meal break deductions in violation of federal law. Moreover, earlier this year, the California Court of Appeals validated a state meal break law statute which provides non‑exempt employees an additional hour of pay each day as a penalty for employers who fail to provide a proper meal break under state law. See UPS, Inc. v. Superior Court, 196 Cal. App. 4th 57 (Cal. App. 2 Dist. 2011).

There is significant room for error with meal breaks for employers who automatically deduct the meal break from an employee’s pay. If an employer automatically deducts a 30‑minute meal break but the employee does not take the full meal break or their meal break is interrupted, the employer must ensure that it has proper procedures in place to either provide the non‑exempt employee another meal break or pay the non‑exempt employee for the interrupted meal break. Otherwise, the non‑exempt employee has not been compensated for all hours worked.

Automatic deductions for meal breaks from non‑exempt employees’ hours worked are lawful under the FLSA only if an employer ensures that an employee takes a full half‑hour meal break. Although automatic deductions may make sense in certain settings – an assembly line that shuts down for half an hour; a receptionist leaves for an hour and another receptionist takes his or her place – the majority of non‑exempt employees work in job settings that are more difficult to track.


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Charles McDonald

Charles McDonald is a shareholder in the Greenville, S.C., office of Ogletree Deakins and a member of the firm's Wage and Hour Practice Group.

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