Is it compensable time when an employee takes frequent, 15-minute breaks each hour due to the employee’s serious health condition? Today, the United States Department of Labor (DOL) answered this question in a hot-off-the-press opinion letter, verifying that FMLA-covered breaks are not compensable.

In today’s opinion letter, the DOL confirmed that frequent, 15-minute breaks taken each hour and necessitated by an employee’s serious health condition is uncompensated time because the breaks are taken for the employee’s, not the employer’s benefit. The DOL noted, however, that employees who take FMLA-protected breaks must receive as many compensable rest breaks as their coworkers receive: “For example, if an employer generally allows all of its employees to take two paid 15-minute rest breaks during an 8-hour shift, an employee needing 15-minute rest breaks every hour due to a serious health condition should likewise receive compensation for two 15-minute rest breaks during his or her 8-hour shift.”

The opinion letter sets forth the legal principles behind the compensability of short rest breaks that primarily benefit an employer and distinguished FMLA-leave to take frequent breaks as primarily for the employee’s benefit due to his or her serious health condition. The DOL cited both the unpaid nature of FMLA leave and a case where the court found an accommodation of frequent rest breaks due to an employee’s back pain need not be paid.

In 2010, the DOL stopped issuing opinion letters in exchange for more broad-based Administrator Interpretations. Then in June 2017, the DOL announced it would reinstate issuing opinion letters and updated its website to assist employers and employees in requesting a letter. The DOL has issued 19 opinion letters since reinstating the practice, all related to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Today’s opinion letter was also issued pursuant to the FLSA, but addresses a topic that employers struggle with when administering unpaid, intermittent FMLA – whether and how to legally reduce pay when an employee is intermittently absent.

Opinion letters can be a great tool for employers to navigate tricky FMLA and FLSA compliance issues. Receiving an opinion letter can later establish a good faith defense against liability.