There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Many times employers try to squeeze unpaid work out of their employees by having them perform work during parts of an unpaid meal break period. However, the Secretary of Labor has promulgated regulations stating that:

Bona fide meal periods are not worktime. Bona fide meal periods do not include coffee breaks or time for snacks. These are rest periods. The employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purposes of eating regular meals. Ordinarily 30 minutes or more is long enough for a bona fide meal period. A shorter period may be long enough under special conditions. The employee is not relieved if he is required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating. For example, an office employee who is required to eat at his desk or a factory worker who is required to be at his machine is working while eating.

29 C.F.R. § 785.19 (emphasis supplied). Many courts have read this language to require an employee to be “completely relieved” from duty for the entire 30 minute meal period or the entire meal break should be paid. See Abendschein v. Montgomery County, 984 F. Supp. 356 (D.Md. 1997); Burks v. Equity Group, 571 F. Supp. 2d 1235 (M.D. Ala. 2008). The holding in Burks is of special note because the 30 minute meal breaks at issue in that case were only interrupted by approximately five minutes donning and doffing activities at the beginning and end of each break – providing workers with approximately 20 minutes of uninterrupted time to themselves. Yet, the Court held that the entire 30 minutes could be compensable.

Meal break violations such as this are typically found with employer timekeeping systems (such as Kronos) that are preprogrammed to automatically reduce an employee’s paid time by 30 minutes the purported meal break. Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York overtime attorneys should be on the look out for unpaid meal break cases like these.

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