I recently gave a presentation at a national wage-hour conference in Miami on the perils of automatic deductions for lunch and the possibility that such a procedure could lead to class actions, with the allegation that the employee(s) worked through lunch but nevertheless suffered an automatic deductions. I have also found that many hospitals and health care employers are utilizing this procedure. Well, it’s happening.
In a federal lawsuit, a judge has granted class certification to a class of employees who allege that meal breaks were deducted from their pay, although they did not eat lunch or were otherwise relieved from duty. The case is entitled Hamelin v. Faxton-St. Lukes Healthcare and was filed in the federal court in the Northern District of New York.
The plaintiffs claim that a half-hour was deducted from their working time every day for lunch, but patient care demands often necessitated that they miss the lunch break and instead performed productive work. The employees at issue are Nurses and Certified Nursing Assistants, i.e. those employees with direct patient care responsibilities.
In an interesting procedural twist, the defendant contended that the court should not exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the claims of the plaintiffs under New York law, with the theory being that when plaintiffs must opt in for one statute (FLSA) and opt out of the other (the state claims), confusion will result. Concomitant to the “confusion” argument, and, to my view, more crucial is that argument that allowing the state claims to proceed deviated from the congressional intent to allow FLSA plaintiffs to opt-in; there was a danger that the state claims and claimants could “overwhelm” the federal claims, according to the defendants. The judge disagreed, finding precedential support from the Second, Seventh, Ninth and District of Columbia circuits.
I think allowing the claims to proceed together is wrong and represents a contradiction in how these cases fundamentally proceed. On the merits, it is essential for employers utilizing automatic deduction policies to implement some fail-safe mechanism that allows employees who claim they have worked through lunch to document that, with follow-up by management and, if appropriate, payment to the employee.