Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Third Circuit on Compensation for Lunch Breaks

Yesterday, the Third Circuit issued its opinion in Babcock v. Butler County (opinion here). The plaintiffs brought this collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) for compensation during their lunch breaks.

The employees are corrections officers, who receive one-hour lunch breaks. Under their collective bargaining agreement, they get paid for 45 minutes and they do not get paid for the remaining 15 minutes.
Not official use.
During the meal period, the corrections officers may not leave the prison without permission from the warden or deputy warden, and they must remain in uniform, in close proximity to emergency response equipment, and on call to respond to emergencies. Plaintiffs claim that as a result of this meal period policy, the officers cannot run personal errands, sleep, breathe fresh air, or smoke cigarettes during mealtime, and if an emergency or unexpected situation arises, the officers must respond immediately in person, in uniform, and with appropriate response equipment.
Does the FLSA require the employer to pay them for those 15 minutes?

The Third Circuit noted a split between courts regarding which of two tests to use:
one looks to whether the employee has been relieved from all duties during the mealtime; the other, more generally adopted, looks to the party to which the “predominant benefit” of the mealtime belongs . . . . The predominant benefit tests asks “whether the officer is primarily engaged in work-related duties during meal periods.”
The Third Circuit used the "predominant benefit" test.

The Third Circuit concluded that the burdens imposed on the employees do not outweigh the benefit to the employees of the lunch break. In other words, the employees receive the "predominant benefit." The Court also considered the CBA as a factor in the analysis, noting that it represents "the agreed-upon characterization of the fifteen-minute unpaid meal break."

This case is a fairly significant win for employers. I expect a lot of FLSA cases will be litigated over who receives the "predominant benefit" of breaks.