In each of the past three years, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals (which is the appellate court for all the U.S. District Courts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware) has issued an opinion addressing the rules for deciding when workers should be paid for “breaks.” All three cases interpret the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and its detailed regulations. Since the Third Circuit only issues a handful of precedential FLSA opinions each year, it’s a little unusual to see three decisions addressing a common topic.
Here’s a quick summary of the three “break” cases:
First, in Babcock v. Butler County, 860 F.3d 153 (3d Cir. Nov. 24, 2015), a group of County correctional officers claimed that the prison violated their FLSA rights by failing to pay them for 15 minutes of their one-hour meal break. The officers claimed they should be paid for the full hour because, during the break, they were not allowed to leave the prison and were required to remain in uniform. The Circuit Court disagreed, explaining that time spent during meal breaks must be paid only if the workers’ activities during the break are for the “predominant benefit” of the employer. The Court then observed that the restrictions on the officers’ time (requiring the officers to remain at the prison and remain in uniform) were not very onerous in the law enforcement context and, as such, did not “predominantly benefit” the prison. This outcome is unsurprising and, in my view, reaffirms the mantra that: “Bad facts make bad law.” Does anyone really expect judges or juries to feel sorry for employees who (i) get a full one-hour meal break and (ii) are actually paid for 45 minutes of the break? “Give me a break.”
Next, in Smiley v. E.I. DuPont De Nemours & Co., 839 F.3d 325 (3d Cir. Oct. 7, 2016), workers at a manufacturing plant in Towanda, PA sought to pay for time spent before and after their shifts “donning and doffing their uniforms and protective gear.” The company argued that, even if the workers were entitled to be paid for these pre-shift and post-shift activities, such unpaid time could be “offset” by the time the workers spent in paid meal breaks. The Circuit Court disagreed with the company based on a detailed analysis of the FLSA’s statutory and regulatory language addressing wage “offsets.” This is an extremely complicated and technical opinion. But the resulting rule of law is clear: employers who provide workers with paid meal breaks may not use such compensation to offset unpaid time during other periods of the workday.
Finally, in Secretary of the U.S. Dept. of Labor v. American Future Systems, Inc., 873 F.3d 420 (3d Cir. Oct. 13, 2017), the Third Circuit issued the most far-reaching of the three break opinions. There, the Court endorsed and adopted the bright-line rule that workplace breaks of under 20 minutes must be paid under the FLSA. The U.S. Department of Labor previously adopted this rule in an interpretive regulation described at 29 C.F.R. 785.18. And now the Circuit Court has formally endorsed the 20-minute rule, making the unambiguous law of the land in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. This is very good news for both employees (whose FLSA rights have been solidified) and employers (who benefit from easy-to-understand and administer FLSA rules). One final observation: the Circuit Court flatly rejected the employer's argument that the 20-minute rule did not apply because the unpaid time was “flex-time” rather than a “break.” This reaffirms the mantra that: “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.”