The Legality of Automatically Deducting Meal Breaks

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn October 10, 2012In: Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), Wages and Benefits

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Many employers automatically deduct thirty minutes for employees' meal breaks. The employer's policy provides that an employee must take their allotted 30-minute break unless a supervisor authorizes the employee to work through the break. And, in the unusual case when the employee does have to miss her break, she must report it to ensure she gets paid.

There are several reasons to have an automatic-deduction policy. For example, for employees who spend most of the workday out of the office without access to a time clock, an automatic-deduction policy can be the only realistic option for timekeeping purposes. It also means less administrative work and room for error when employees forget to clock back in after a break. Auto-deduct policies are very common in hospitals and other health-care facilities.

But this type of meal-break policy isn't popular only with employers; plaintiff's counsel have taken a liking to it, as well. Over the last few years, numerous suits have been filed as class actions under the state and federal (FLSA) wage laws. The suits allege that the employees did not get the benefit of the full meal break but were not paid for the time because of the automatic-deduction policy. As with any class or collective action, meal-break suits can mean big costs for employers.

But the news isn't all bad. Several opinions have been issued recently finding against plaintiffs in automatic-deduction cases. A case issued last week by a court in the Northern District of Illinois is yet another indication that the tides may have turned in favor of employers. In Camilotes v. Resurrection Health Care Corp., No. 1:10-cv-00366 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 4, 2012), the court decertified the FLSA collective action, finding that the claims and defenses were too individualized to justify proceeding as a class.

Specifically the court pointed to the fact that the plaintiffs worked different shifts and reported to many different supervisors, each of whom enforced the meal-break policy differently. The court also looked to the fact that the plaintiffs alleged different numbers of missed breaks whether those missed breaks actually caused the plaintiffs to have worked overtime.

Although the case is a victory for the employer, it was a victory hard fought, as the employer had to get through the costly discovery process before succeeding on decertification.

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