Yesterday, a Minnesota judge ruled that Wal-Mart violated state wage and hour laws by failing to provide meal and rest periods to more than 56,000 of its employees. The judge found evidence of more than 2 million separate violations, and awarded the class of employees $6.5 million in back wages. The judge will hold a second hearing on possible penalties, which could exceed $2 billion.
In light of this news, now is as good a time as any to revisit my post from a couple of weeks ago on whether employees' meal periods counted as "hours worked" under the FLSA:
A bona fide meal period, however, is not considered hours worked. To be a bona fide meal period the employee must be totally relieved of his or her work duties. According to the Department of Labor: "The employee is not relieved if he is required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating."
So, what does it mean to be "totally relieved of one's work duties?" The 6th Circuit falls in line with most of the federal courts in applying the "predominant benefit" test to determine whether an employee's meal period is compensable. Under this test, first applied by the 6th Circuit in Myracle v. Gen. Elec. Co., the employee bears the burden to prove that the normally non-compensable meal period should be compensable because it is spent predominantly for the employer's benefit. The key inquiry is whether the employee engaged in the performance of any substantial duties during the lunch break. As long as the employee can pursue his or her mealtime adequately and comfortably, is not engaged in the performance of any substantial duties, and does not spend time predominantly for the employer's benefit, the employee is not entitled to compensation under the FLSA for a lunch break. Thus, for example, it may not matter if an employee is "on call" during a meal break, unless the employee's meal is actually disturbed.
As most employment law issues, it is best to set out expectations about meal breaks in a clear policy. For example: "Each employee is entitled to a 30-minute lunch break each day. That lunch break is unpaid. Because it is unpaid, it is the employee's time to spend as he or she sees fit. Employees should expect to enjoy their lunch breaks without interruption by a co-worker, supervisor, or manager, except in the event of a emergency that requires an employee to cut his or her lunch break short. No employee is permitted to work through a lunch break without the prior approval of his or her immediate supervisor." Of course, such a policy is only as good as how it is enforced.