In a significant decision addressing the compensability of employee break times, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently held that time spent by a group of security guards monitoring their radios during meal periods was not compensable work time under the FLSA because they failed to demonstrate that the time spent during their meal breaks was predominantly for the benefit of their employer.  Notably, the Sixth Circuit found that the meal periods were non-compensable notwithstanding the fact that the security guards were unable to leave the premises and had to listen to their radio throughout their break, regardless of what they were doing.  

The case, Ruffin, et al. v. MotorCity Casino, was brought by a group of security guards who worked at a casino in Detroit. The plaintiffs were scheduled to work five eight-hour shifts per week and were also required to attend a 15-minute, pre-shift roll call meeting each day.  The employer provided security guards with a paid 30-minute meal period each day and used that paid time to offset the guards’ overtime hours. During their meal periods, the guards were free to eat, socialize, use their cell phones, surf the internet, play cards, read, and watch television.  However, they were not permitted to leave the casino, and they were required to monitor their radios and to respond to any emergency calls.  

Although the guards admitted that it was very rare that they were actually required to respond to emergency calls during their meals, they nevertheless claimed that monitoring the radios exposed them to constant work-related “chatter” that regularly disrupted their meal periods. Accordingly, the guards alleged their meal periods were predominantly for the employer’s benefit and, as such, constituted compensable time under the FLSA and could not be used to offset overtime hours. 

In affirming the trial court’s order granting the employer’s motion for summary judgment, the Sixth Circuit held that “after examining the totality of the circumstances...the evidence [was] undisputed that the plaintiffs perform[ed] no substantial job duties during meal breaks, emergency calls rarely—if ever—interrupt[ed] the [plaintiffs’] meals, and the [plaintiffs] pursued their ‘mealtime adequately and comfortably.”  Therefore, “no reasonable jury could find that plaintiffs’ meal periods predominantly benefited [the employer].” 

Although the court recognized there might be a case where monitoring a radio constitutes a substantial job duty, rather than a de minimis activity, the court found it particularly important that in this case the guards' meal periods were rarely interrupted by emergency calls. Moreover,  the guards spent their meal periods “‘adequately and comfortably’...by eating, reading, socializing, and conducting personal business on their phones—despite needing to monitor their radios.” The guards “introduced no evidence that monitoring the radio interfered with, or prevented them from enjoying, these activities.”  Although the court recognized that “it is...possible that an employee who does not perform a substantial job duty during the meal break, but who must consistently interrupt the meal to perform one task or another, nevertheless spends that time predominantly for the employer’s benefit,” the employees in this case failed to present evidence to establish that emergency calls “regularly interrupted their meal periods.”  In fact, the court found the evidence actually established the guards’ meal periods were rarely interrupted by emergency calls, which the court said proved “the meal periods predominantly benefited the [employees].” 

The court also rejected the argument that because the guards were not permitted to leave the casino during the meal periods, the meal time predominantly benefited the employer.  The court agreed that the position taken by other courts that the “mere fact that an employee is required to eat lunch on the employer’s premises” does not convert a meal period into compensable work time is “a sensible position, because it is not so much the employee’s inability to leave the premises that indicates who predominantly benefits from the meal period, but rather whether the employer takes advantage of the employee’s presence on the premises by making her work during a nominal meal period.”  Thus, the court stated that “the relevant inquiry should ... be whether the employer requires an employee to take meal periods on the premises as an indirect or round-about way of extracting unpaid work from the employee.”  When considered in that light, the court held that although the guards were not permitted to leave the casino during their meal periods, they spent their time “doing exactly what one might expect an off-duty employee to be doing during a meal break:  eating, socializing, reading, surfing the Internet and conducting personal business on their smartphones.” 

Ruffin bolsters the position that merely requiring an employee to “monitor” a radio, telephone or other device in case the employee is needed to return to work or to respond to emergency calls during a meal period does not constitute compensable work under the FLSA. Nevertheless, the decision also reminds employers that, depending on the circumstances, requiring employees to perform certain activities during meal periods may pose a risk that the time will be considered compensable work-time.