Decision: On November 24, 2015, in Babcock, et al. v. Butler County, a divided Third Circuit panel adopted the “predominant benefit” test to determine whether a meal period is compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The test weighs the benefits the employer and the employees receive from the break.

The case arose from a collective action brought by a corrections officer who alleged that she and other prison guards were owed overtime pay by their employer, Butler County, because 15 minutes of their one-hour meal break were unpaid and during the break the guards had to remain on call for emergencies and were not allowed to leave the prison without express permission. The district court dismissed the case, agreeing with the county’s arguments that the meal period was not compensable work because the guards received the predominant benefit of the meal period.

On appeal, the Third Circuit refused to adopt the “completely relieved from all duties” test and agreed with the district court’s application of the “predominant benefit” test. Doing so, the panel found that the guards were not primarily engaged in work duties during the break and also noted the existence of a collective-bargaining agreement that required guards be partially compensated with overtime pay if their break is interrupted by work.

The dissent (Circuit Judge Joseph A. Greenaway Jr.) stated that the majority had misapplied the “predominant benefit” test because the officers have to be prepared to work at a moment’s notice and are subjected to other restrictions that “greatly limit their movement.” Judge Greenaway rejected the majority’s focus on the fact that the guards could ask for permission to leave the prison and would be compensated if work interrupted their break.

Impact: This decision clarifies the applicable test in the Third Circuit. While the rejection of the “completely relieved from all duties” test is a positive development for employers, the “predominant benefit” test is based heavily on the facts at issue and—as is evident from the disagreement between the majority and the dissent—facts are subject to varying interpretations. Employers would benefit from reviewing meal break practices to identify and address circumstances that are vulnerable to interpretation as benefitting the employer.