Medical care providers have been experiencing an uptick in Fair Labor Standards Act lawsuits based on automatically deducted meal periods. Recently, a nurse filed a collective action lawsuit against St. Luke’s Health System Corporation and various affiliates, claiming that they failed to pay nurses for work performed during meal breaks. Specifically, the nurse alleges that St. Luke’s automatically deducts 30 minutes from each shift for meal periods, assuming that its nurses are able to find a 30-minute block of time to eat. The nurse further claims that, in reality, nurses remain on duty when attempting to eat, and that their meal periods are frequently interrupted. Given the potential for large liability and the likelihood of copycat lawsuits, employers—particularly medical care providers—should examine their meal period policies to ensure the policies are compliant with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Under the FLSA and its regulations, employers do not have to pay for “bona fide meal periods,” which are “ordinarily 30 minutes or more.” For a meal period to not be compensable, “the employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purposes of eating regular meals.” Further, an “employee is not relieved if he is required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating.”

Although courts have held that automatic meal period deduction policies do not violate the FLSA by themselves, employers may face additional challenges in defending such a policy in an FLSA lawsuit. If an employee is required to manually enter their time or clock out during meal periods, employees are accountable for recording their meal periods correctly. Employers with automatic deductions, however, cannot defend themselves by noting that employees are responsible for entering their own time, which could lead to a “he said, she said” situation. Likewise, employers will have difficulty establishing that an employee actually enjoyed uninterrupted meal periods when there is no record of precisely when the employee took meal breaks. Employers who have records of the actual meal period times can match the times to timestamps on other records, such as e-mails or logs.

Even if, due to practical concerns, employers insist on having automatic meal periods, there are several ways to strengthen and improve these policies. Initially, employers with such policies should clearly communicate to employees procedures for reporting uncompensated work time, including meal breaks. Evidence that a plaintiff failed to follow such procedures can be detrimental to his or her lawsuit. Further, employers should adequately train managers and employees regarding the legal requirements of adequate meal periods. Managers should know not to contact their subordinates during meal periods, and report any violations of company meal period policy.

The potential damages for violating the FLSA’s meal period requirements can be steep, particularly when dealing with employees who frequently work overtime hours (like nurses). An employee can recover compensation for any interrupted meal breaks over a three year period. Further, a prevailing employee is usually entitled to double the amount of unpaid wages as liquidated damages. Making matters worse, an employee could file a lawsuit as a collective action, which would allow for similar employees to join the lawsuit. In the St. Luke’s lawsuit, for example, the plaintiff has alleged that the potential class will include more than 5,000 current and former employees.

To avoid a costly collective action lawsuit, employers should review their meal period policies and, if necessary, implement changes or improvements. Employers should keep in mind that some states have their own specific requirements for meal and rest breaks that are broader than the FLSA’s requirements. Multi-jurisdictional employers will need to either implement a universal policy that is compliant with the most strict applicable law, or have separate policies for specific locations with more strict requirements.