This week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided two cases affirming that under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employees seeking compensation for work related activities performed during lunch breaks have the burden to show that they spent their meal time predominantly for the employer’s benefit, and that employees are precluded from recovering when they do not follow an established reporting procedure.  These cases clearly establish that minor burdens during meal breaks, such as monitoring radios or being available for emergencies, are not significant enough to convert the breaks to compensable work time.  Consequently, the Sixth Circuit further clarified its stance that, so long as the break is still primarily for the employees’ benefit, the time need not be counted for overtime pay calculation purposes.

Case  No. 1: EMTs Need Not be Compensated for Breaks On-Call or for Breaks Missed But Not Reported

In the first case, Jones-Turner v. Yellow Enterprise Systems, LLC, EMTs were allowed to request a lunch break whenever their schedules permitted, but they were required to stay within a mile of their assigned location and to promptly answer their radios if called.  Dispatch was supposed to record in their logs whether the EMTs took a lunch break, but did not do so consistently.  The employer automatically deducted a 30-minute lunch break from each employee’s shift unless the employee submitted a “missed-lunch slip.”  The plaintiffs claimed that they often missed lunch breaks but did not always fill out missed lunch slips. 

The Sixth Circuit confirmed its “predominant benefit” test, articulated in its 1964 Hill v. United Statesdecision, under which an “employee bears the burden of establishing that she performs substantial duties and spends her meal time predominantly for the employer’s benefit” in order for the break to be compensable.  Applying this test, the Sixth Circuit found that the EMTs did not meet their burden because they were not required to perform any duties beyond responding to radio calls and were not frequently interrupted. 

The Sixth Circuit also applied its 2012 holding in White v. Baptist Memorial and found that plaintiffs were precluded from recovering pay for missed meal periods for which they did not submit a missed-lunch slip, as the employer had established a reasonable process to report missed lunches, and there was no evidence that the employer had actual knowledge that the employees were not being compensated for time worked.  The court specifically rejected the employees’ argument that the employer should have known about the missed lunches based on dispatch logs, as there was no evidence that the managers regularly reviewed them, since they relied on the missed-lunch slips. 

Case No. 2: Security Guards’ Meal Breaks are not Compensable Even Though They Must Monitor Radios During Those Breaks

Two days later after issuing its Jones-Turner decision, the Sixth Circuit decided Ruffin v. MotorCity Casino, a case in which security guards were required during their meal breaks to remain on the property, monitor their radios, and respond to emergencies, and were not permitted to receive visitors or have food delivered, but otherwise  they were able to spend their mealtimes as they pleased.  The guards claimed that, though emergencies rarely interrupted their meal breaks, monitoring the radios exposed them to constant, work-related chatter that they had to pay attention to in order to know if an emergency required their attention.  Nonetheless, they testified that they were able to eat, socialize, make phone calls, surf the internet, and watch television during their meal periods. 

Moreover, plaintiffs claimed that they were entitled to overtime.  The employees worked five eight-hour shifts every week, including 30 minute daily meal breaks.  However, the employer also required the guards to attend an unpaid fifteen-minute meeting before every shift began, and thus the employees claimed that they were required to work 41.25 hours every week.

As to the meal break issue, the court applied the Hill three-factor test to determine whether the employees’ meal times were spent predominantly for the employer’s or employee’s benefit(1) whether the employee was engaged in the performance of substantial duties; (2) whether the employer’s business regularly interrupted the employee’s meal period; and (3) the employee’s inability to leave the employer’s property.  The Sixth Circuit held that the mealtimes were not compensable because they did not primarily benefit the employer, and specifically found that merely monitoring a radio and being able to respond if called is not a substantial duty; that interruptions were rare; and that although the employees were not free to leave the casino, the employer did not take advantage of their presence by making them work.

Because the mealtimes were paid but not compensable under the FLSA, the court ruled that the employer could off-set the time paid for those meal periods against the compensable meetings, such the plaintiffs only actually worked 38.75 hours per week.  As a result, the unpaid meal breaks did not serve to trigger an overtime obligations, and therefore plaintiffs were not entitled to any relief.

Impact of Holdings

These cases are another blow to claims for overtime pay relating to meal breaks.  If an employee is on a meal break, minor interruptions or other burdens will not convert the break from non-work to work time, and de minimis interruptions can be disregarded.  The cases also teach that well written time recording policies can be particularly helpful in defeating these claims, but employers must also review the extent they impose conditions on otherwise non-compensable break time.  Most circuits adhere to the views of the Sixth Circuit on these points, but these decisions are particularly clean and to the point.  Further, for those employers providing paid meal periods, Ruffin provides an additional defense to FLSA overtime claims (at least within the Sixth Circuit) by allowing employers to offset the meal periods against additional time worked by employees.