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Federal courts holding to a hard line on wage and hour interpretations

January 21, 2015

By Michael J. Burns, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

Another ruling in federal court, this one by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Michigan), demonstrates that the courts are maintaining a strict interpretation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which tends to favor employers in many circumstances.

Following last month’s U.S Supreme Court’s ruling holding that waiting in line for a mandatory security check is not compensable time, the Sixth Circuit has now ruled that unpaid meal periods during which workers are required to be available and monitoring communication are not compensable either.

The basic wage and hour law that many employers know and comply with is that if a meal period requires activity that predominantly benefits the employer, it is compensable time. Otherwise it can be unpaid time. This is what the plaintiff-employees argued.

The plaintiffs worked as security guards at Motor City Casino in Detroit. They worked five eight-hour days with an additional half-hour unpaid meal period, and were paid for a 40 hour shift. The guards were also required to be present before shift for a 15-minute roll call, which was unpaid.  During the meal time, the employer required them to remain on casino to monitor two-way radios and to respond to emergencies if they occur. These requirements, the guards argued, made the roll call and the meal break time compensable under the FLSA.

The court addressed the 15-minute roll call period that guards were required to attend and both parties agreed early on that this time should have been paid time; they agreed to make it compensable time going forward. The 15-minute roll call periods made the guards’ normal workweek 41.25. If the 30-minute meal period was compensable this would push the work week to a total of 43.5 hours with 3 hours of overtime per week owed.  

During the 30-minute break period workers were allowed to eat, drink, move around, use their cell phones or Internet, watch TV, read, use company-provided computers, play cards etc. But they could not leave the casino, receive outside food or have visitors.

Regardless of those considerations, the crux of the complaint was the employer’s requirement that the guards monitor their two-way radios and be ready to respond if a certain code was called. Failure to respond was grounds for termination. But if the guard’s meal break was interrupted the guard was entitled to take time off at another point to get the full break time allowed.

The Court reviewed past precedent on what constitutes “work” under the FLSA. Previous rulings characterized “work” as:

  • A “physical or mental exertion (whether burdensome or not) controlled or required by the employer and pursued necessarily and primarily for the benefit of the employer and his business.”
  • “Time spent predominantly for the employer’s benefit during a period, although designated as a lunch period or under any other designation, nevertheless constitutes working time compensable under the [FLSA].
  • But “[a]s 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 relieved of duty and is not entitled to compensation under the FLSA.” Hill, 751 F.2d at 814.

Many court cases, noted the Sixth Circuit, rules that carrying a communication device while on break did not make the time compensable by itself; if the break time went uninterrupted it could not be considered work time. Rather, the courts considered whether or not the number and degree of interruptions amounted to a constant state of call to work, which would shift the benefit to the employer and make the time compensable. In this case, testimony established that interruptions were infrequent at best.

The final circumstance the court addressed was the employer’s requirement that the guards remain at the workplace during their meal break. Although this was often a consideration in determining whether or not an employee is released from duties, the Sixth Circuit noted that “merely requiring an employee to remain on the employer’s premises does not convert meal break time into compensable working time.” This was the court’s decision when analyzing whether the requirement to stay on the premises was an indirect or roundabout way of extracting unpaid work from the employee. It the case at hand, it was not.

The Sixth Circuit’s ruling upheld the lower Court’s summary judgment decision in favor of the employer.

The takeaway for employers that require their non-exempt employees to take meal breaks on the premises should be to review how often they are called off their breaks to attend to work matters.

A parallel but far more common circumstance where employers get themselves in trouble occurs when employees themselves decide to work “through lunch.” They may even record themselves as taking a lunch break but still work through their lunch period. If this is part of an organization’s practice and culture, sooner or later it will turn into an employee complaint, and may very well result in stiff fines or worse for an employer.

Source: Angela Ruffin et.al v. Motor City Casino  No.14-1444 (1/7/2015)

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