There are employers whose “smart” time clocks automatically make a thirty minute deduction every day for lunch, supposedly and assumedly taken.  I have railed against this practice, advising that the far safer thing is to have employees punch out and then back in for lunch, because someone, somewhere down the line, will assert that they worked through lunch but nevertheless had that half-hour deducted.  That chicken has now come home to roost.

A hospital/nursing home owner, Kindred Healthcare Inc. has been accused, in a proposed class action, of not properly paying employees because this employer has an automatic lunch deduction system, that deducts time for lunch, even if the employee allegedly did not take the lunch.  The case is entitled Samuel v. Kindred Healthcare, Inc. filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.  It is couched as a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).

The Complaint alleges that there are “thousands” of potential class members.  This timekeeping system automatically deducts a 30-minute meal period from employees, but the employees contend they often have to work through lunch on patient care issues.

The Complaint also alleges that employees must stay at their desks or posts during their breaks and continue to work.  Work, according to the Complaint, “includes responding to pages, answering the telephones, replying to requests by patients, co-workers and management, and performing all other duties and responsibilities that are required.”

These cases are very tough for the employer to prevail upon, especially in a health care environment, where it is not beyond the realm of possibility that patient tasks and responsibilities might keep a worker (or workers) busy during their lunch.  To the contrary, it is also impossible to imagine that one thousand employees never took lunch for two years.  The worrisome thing is that by making the automatic deduction, without having some “fail-safe” mechanism in place so that employees can report that they worked through lunch, have the claim investigated and, if true, the time paid, then the employer has left itself very little wiggle room and a tough case to defend.

Smart clocks may be silly policy!