Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, there is no law requiring employees receive a lunch period or break times. However, when the employer gives time for lunch, the employees must receive at least thirty minutes and the time must be uninterrupted. Put differently, the employees must be completely relieved from duty. When employees are not so relieved, they must then be compensated for that time, i.e. the half-hour, which all becomes “converted” into working time.
This is what the DOL found happened in this investigation, which ultimately included 4000 nurses. Some of the nurses answered phones while on lunch and others performed “some” duties. The result, however, is the same—all of the time is converted.
The hospitals also had an automatic deduction policy, by which one-half hour was automatically deducted from the nurses’ time for that day, on the assumption that the lunch was taken. Although the hospitals had a policy about not working during lunch (i.e. not carrying the hospital-provided phones during meal breaks) and also had a policy that allowed nurses to cancel the automatic deduction if they performed actual, productive work. The hospitals claimed that the nurses did not follow the policy. The result was a supervised settlement providing for $1.7 million to be paid to the affected employees.
I have clients who have these automatic deduction systems for lunch time. As this makes clear, the automatic is not so automatic. There must still be supervisory oversight and intervention in issues where employees may have worked through lunch, to ensure that proper payment is made. The employer must have a system where employees can report that they worked through lunch and the employees, in my view, must be given training on the system, so all productive time is paid for and the DOL does not come knocking on the door.
In sum, a policy, a piece of paper, will not provide a defense to claims of uncompensated working time. More is required of the employer.