Meal Breaks: To Pay or Not to Pay?

Paying employees the wages they are due for their work is, conceptually, at least, a pretty straightforward matter. Working 8 hours, e.g., results in 8 hours of pay, less time spent on a meal break of 30 or 60 minutes. But when it comes to deducting time spent on meals by hourly employees, things sometimes get tricky. While Massachusetts and federal law permit meal breaks to be unpaid, the rule applies only when employees are completely relieved of their work duties.

As with many things legal, interpreting what this means can be anything but straightforward. Wage and hour guidance indicates that, any time an employee is required to remain on site or to perform any sort of work, either actively or not, meal break time must be paid. This likely means that an employee who sits with others during lunch and discusses work issues needs to be paid for the break time, even if the employer supplies a sandwich at no cost to the worker. It certainly means that, when an employee may possibly perform work while on break – answering a phone call, e.g., or addressing questions about a work issue – the time spent eating is compensable regardless whether work is actually performed. Not surprisingly, employers sometimes stumble on this issue. Because the penalties for not paying workers for all hours worked can be severe (triple the amount owed plus legal fees under the Massachusetts Wage Act), the damage from an error in this area can be significant, especially for larger employers.

One recent case illustrates the point. In June, a U.S. District Court allowed a case to move forward to trial after it was unable to determine with certainty whether limits placed by an employer on meal break usage means a group of truck drivers cannot be docked for meal time. The employer in that case directs its workers not to drive more than 5 or 10 miles off their routes during lunch. It also asks that they “try” to keep their vehicles within sight while they are on breaks. Workers claim that these restrictions mean their lunch hours must be paid.  Their employer is now in a rather difficult spot as it faces a trial that could result in substantial damages. In consequence, it may be forced to both voluntarily pay its drivers at least a portion of what they seek and to change its meal time policies.

To avoid similar problems, employers should ensure that workers who are not paid for meal breaks are free to do as they please with their meal times. No limits or suggested limits should be placed on them other than a requirement that they return to work at the end of their allotted break times. Meal breaks must be offered to employees who work 6 hours or more. They may only be sacrificed when employees voluntarily relinquish them.