Whether meal breaks count as compensable hours worked for non-exempt employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act can be a thorny issue for employers. The FLSA regulations provide that meal periods during which an employee is “completely relieved of duty for the purpose of eating regular meals” do not count as hours worked. 29 C.F.R. § 785.19. Generally, an employee must be given 30 minutes or more and must be completely relieved of his or her duties for a period to qualify as a bona fide unpaid meal break.

But what if the employer places various restrictions on non-exempt employees during unpaid meal breaks?  For example, what if the employee is prohibited from leaving the employer’s premises without prior authorization during an unpaid meal break? What if employees also must remain on call to perform work at a moment’s notice during a meal break?

The Third Circuit recently issued a decision in which it, for the first time, clarified the test to be used to determine whether restrictions placed on employees during meal periods make the periods compensable hours worked, even if the employee did not actually perform any work during the meal period.

The Case

In Babcock v. Butler County, a group of corrections officers at the Butler County Prison alleged that the Prison’s policy of providing one-hour meal periods, of which 45 minutes were paid and 15 minutes were unpaid, resulted in unpaid overtime compensation in violation of the FLSA. They claimed that the entire hour of the meal period should be treated as compensable hours worked, due to restrictions placed on them during the meal periods. Specifically, during the meal periods, the officers could not leave the prison without prior authorization and were required to remain in uniform and be on call and in close proximity to emergency response equipment in the event of an emergency. The Prison filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the meal periods were not hours worked because the officers received the “predominant benefit” of the meal period. The District Court agreed and dismissed the complaint.

The officers appealed, and in a 2-1 precedential decision, a panel of the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal. Following the lead of the majority of other courts of appeals, the Third Circuit adopted the “predominant benefit” test, which asks whether the employee is primarily engaged in work-related duties during the meal period. By doing so, the Third Circuit expressly rejected the alternative and more restrictive “relieved from all duties” test.

The Third Circuit noted that the “predominant benefits” test is a “fact-intensive inquiry” that assesses the “totality of the circumstances to determine, on a case-by-case basis, to whom the benefit of the meal period inures.” After reviewing the facts alleged in the complaint, the Third Circuit majority concluded that, despite the restrictions imposed on them, the officers on balance received the predominant benefit of the unpaid meal periods. The Third Circuit majority also considered the parties’ collective bargaining agreement, noted that officers must be paid for the entire meal period if it is “interrupted” by work,  and concluded that the CBA’s protections on overtime compensation also supported its conclusion.

Circuit Judge Greenaway filed a dissenting opinion, stating that the majority used a “flawed application” of the predominant benefit test and erroneously relied on the CBA to dismiss the complaint.

Takeaways for Pennsylvania Employers

Because the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has jurisdiction over Pennsylvania, the Babcock decision provides a number of clarifications and reminders for employers in Pennsylvania.

  1. Restrictions on non-exempt employees during meal breaks, such as restrictions on leaving the employer’s facilities and requiring that the employees remain on call during the meal break, do not necessarily make the meal time compensable hours worked under the FLSA.
  2. The proper analysis is whether those restrictions are so significant and expansive that the employer, and not the employee, predominantly benefits from the meal time.
  3. This case considered “uninterrupted” meal breaks. Even if the restrictions are not onerous, employers should treat meal breaks as compensable hours worked if the employee is interrupted by work duties at any point during the meal break. In other words, if an employer wishes to make meal breaks for non-exempt employees unpaid, it should have policies and procedures in place to ensure that employees know (1) not to perform any work, such as answering calls or responding to e-mails, during a meal break unless expressly instructed by management to do so, and (2) to report any interrupted meal breaks to ensure they receive compensation for them.

Meal break cases present significant liability concerns for employers, as they easily can become class action lawsuits covering many employees. The Babcock decision helps employers and employees by providing some clarity in this often murky issue. Employers should be vigilant and have and enforce lawful meal break policies to ensure that unpaid meal breaks do not become a troublesome and expensive class-based lawsuit.