Where a hospital had established a system to compensate employees for missed meal breaks and paid employees when they used that system, a nurse working in that hospital could not recover under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act for missed meal breaks when she failed to use the reporting system, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled. White v. Baptist Mem’l Health Care Corp., No. 11-5717 (6th Cir. Nov. 6, 2012). Affirming summary judgment in favor of the hospital, the Court held that the nurse could not recover damages in the absence of evidence that the hospital prevented her from using its reporting system. The Sixth Circuit has jurisdiction over Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee.

Background

Margaret White worked as emergency room nurse for Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp. from 2005 to 2007. White did not have a regularly scheduled meal break due to the nature of her job, and meal breaks occurred as work demands allowed. During her new employee orientation, White received a copy of Baptist Memorial’s employee handbook. The handbook stated employees working shifts of six or more hours would receive an unpaid meal break that was automatically deducted from their paychecks. The handbook also provided that if an employee’s meal break was missed or interrupted because of a work related reason, the employee would be compensated for the time she worked during the meal break. Baptist Memorial employees were instructed to record all time spent performing work during meal breaks in an “exception log.” White signed a document that stated she understood the meal break policy and, therefore, understood that if she worked during her meal break, she had to record that time in an exception log to be compensated. 

For a period of time, White recorded her missed or interrupted meal breaks in the exception log and received compensation for those missed breaks. At some point, however, White stopped reporting her missed meal breaks in the exception log. White occasionally complained to her supervisors and Baptist Memorial’s human resources department that she was not getting her meal breaks, but she never told them that she was not compensated for the missed breaks.

Applicable Law

“[A]n FLSA plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she performed work for which he or she was not properly compensated.” Myers v. Copper Cellar Corp., 192 F.3d 546, 551 (6th Cir. 1999). An automatic meal deduction system is lawful under the FLSA. See generally Hill v. U.S., 751 F.2d 810 (6th Cir. 1984). However, “time spent predominantly for the employer’s benefit during a period, although designated as a lunch period or under any other designation” constitutes compensable working time. F.W. Stock & Sons, Inc. v. Thompson, 194 F.2d 493, 496-97(6th Cir. 1952). If an “employer knows or has reason to believe that [a worker] is continuing to work [then] the time is working time.” 29 C.F.R. § 785.11. 

Court Rejects Claim for Missed Meal Breaks

White argued that Baptist Memorial violated the FLSA by failing to compensate her for her missed meal periods even though she failed to follow Baptist Memorial’s reporting procedures. The Court rejected White’s claim. Under the FLSA, if an employer establishes a reasonable process for an employee to report uncompensated work time the employer is not liable for non-payment if the employee fails to follow the established process. Whenever White used the reporting procedures to record a missed meal break, she was paid, and when she did not use the procedure, she was not paid. White offered no evidence showing that Baptist Memorial knew that she was not paid for the missed breaks or that Baptist Memorial intentionally prevented her from recording her missed meal periods. Although White occasionally told her supervisors that she was not getting her meal breaks, she never told them that she was not being compensated for missing her meal breaks. Accordingly, the Court held that White’s FLSA claim failed.

***

This case confirms that employers cannot be held liable for uncompensated time if they have established procedures for employees to record uncompensated time. The decision also underscores that employees have a responsibility to ensure that they use the reporting procedure so that they are properly compensated. Nevertheless, to promote wage-hour compliance, employers not only should establish and publicize timekeeping-reporting procedures, but consider conducting periodic employee training regarding their procedures and the consequences for failing to follow them.