Court Rules Employee Meal Period Interruptions Don't Require Compensation

Employers should take note to carefully consider the totality of the circumstances surrounding employees’ meal breaks when determining whether the time is compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently considered this very issue in Ruffin v MotorCity Casino. The court held that a casino was not required to pay its security guards for meal breaks under the FLSA, even though the guards were required to stay on the casino’s premises, monitor their two-way radios, and respond to any emergencies that arose during their lunch break.

The security guards filed suit against the casino in 2012, alleging that they were entitled to receive overtime pay because the casino required them to “work” during their paid lunch breaks. The guards were “free, during their breaks, to eat, drink, socialize with other MotorCity employees, use their cell phones, utilize the internet, watch the TVs installed in the cafeteria and various break rooms, read, use the company provided computers in the cafeteria, [and] play cards and other games[.]” 

However the guards could not leave casino property, have food delivered to the casino, or receive visitors. In addition, the guards were responsible for listening to their radios and, if they heard a dispatcher call the appropriate code, were required to respond to any emergency in the casino. A guard who did not respond to a mid-meal emergency call was subject to discipline.

The appellate court noted that, pursuant to the FLSA, time spent predominantly for the employer’s benefit during a period, although designated as a lunch period or under any other designation, nevertheless constitutes compensable working time. However, if the employee can pursue his or her mealtime adequately and comfortably, is not engaged in the performance of any substantial duties, and does not spend time predominantly for the employer’s benefit, the employee is relieved of duty and is not entitled to compensation under the FLSA.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit emphasized that whether time is spent predominantly for the employer’s or the employee’s benefit depends on the totality of the circumstances.  It is the employee’s burden to prove that a meal period is compensable. To make this determination, the court focused on three factors:

(1) whether the guards were engaged in the performance of substantial duties during their meal breaks;

(2) whether the casino’s business regularly interrupted meal breaks; and

(3) whether the requirement to stay on the casino’s premises took advantage of the guards and acted as an indirect way of obtaining unpaid work from the employee.

The appellate court found that the guards were spending their lunch breaks “adequately and comfortably,” noting that they read, socialized, and used their phones for personal business. In addition, the court found that the lunch breaks were almost never interrupted. Lastly, the court found that the casino did not take advantage of the guards by forcing them to stay on the premises, because the guards spent their breaks “doing exactly what one might expect an off-duty employee to do on a meal break.” Therefore, the court affirmed the decision of the district court in granting the casino’s motion for summary judgment.

Again, the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Ruffin emphasizes that employers should carefully consider the totality of the circumstances surrounding their employee’s meal breaks when determining whether the time is compensable under the FLSA.   

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