Are employers required to pay their employees if they’re not working during a meal period? Possibly, and here’s what you need to know in light of the Third Circuit’s recent decision in Babcock vs. Butler County.
In Babcock, the corrections officers at the Butler County Prison filed a class-action lawsuit against Butler County because they were not being paid for a portion of their one-hour meal period. The structure of the meal period had been negotiated as part of a collective bargaining agreement and it stipulated that all corrections officers would not be paid for fifteen minutes of the one-hour meal period. During that fifteen-minute period, the corrections officers were not permitted to leave the prison unless they obtained permission from the warden or deputy warden; were required to remain in uniform; and were considered “on call,” which meant that they were required to respond to emergencies. The corrections officers believed that these restrictions to the fifteen-minute period of their meal break violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
Until Babcock, the Third Circuit had not fully addressed whether any restrictions to a meal period violated the FLSA. As such, employers had been required to follow the U.S. Department of Labor’s regulations on this matter (29 C.F.R. § 785.19), which states that an “employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purposes of eating regular meals.”
A big issue for Babcock was whether the phrase “completely relieved from duty” was to be interpreted literally, or was dependent upon the circumstances of each workplace. The Third Circuit ultimately adopted a totality of the circumstances test to determine whom the meal period benefits. In reaching its decision to affirm the dismissal of the corrections officers’ lawsuit, the Third Circuit looked to two factors: 1) the presence of a collective bargaining agreement, and (2) whether the restrictions to the fifteen-minute period of the meal break benefitted the employer or employee.
The Third Circuit held that the FLSA did not apply to the fifteen-minute period of the corrections officers’ meal break because that period did not “predominantly benefit the employer.” The Third Circuit reasoned that since the corrections officers had the ability to be excused from their meal period restrictions, they were effectively relieved from all work during the fifteen-minute period, as required by the Department of Labor. In addition, the Third Circuit noted that provisions in the corrections officers’ collective bargaining agreement already provided them with FLSA-like protections, such as payment for the performance of certain types of work during the fifteen-minute period.
The facts in Babcock were unique and the ruling of the Third Circuit will likely have limited application moving forward. Employers should still take into account the Department of Labor’s regulations requiring that employees be “completely relieved from duty” while on break. As such, employers should be wary of providing unpaid break periods that require their employees to be “on call” in certain situations. Barring the existence of a collective bargaining agreement, it is likely that any unpaid meal period that requires employees to be on call for specific work situations will violate the FLSA.
As Joseph Gordon previously noted, FLSA class action lawsuits are on the rise. While the decision in Babcock provided some clarity to employers in the Third Circuit, its use of a totality of the circumstances test leaves many important questions unanswered, including how to accurately determine whether a break period predominantly benefits the employer or employee. For now, employers will need to remain careful in how they structure and monitor their employees’ break periods, as it’s likely that more FLSA decisions in the future that are specifically tailored to an industry will be on the rise.