Can Workers Adequately Eat Lunch in Less Than 30 Minutes?

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By Keith M. Hill  

“We should be paid for the time that we're supposed to be at lunch because we don't have enough time to eat our meals,” Jim said to Art, the shop foreman.

“You have exactly the amount of time contained in the collective bargaining agreement that your union negotiated,” Art said.

“It's not enough,” Jim said. “The company has to give us more time.”

FACTS: A group of current and former hourly workers at a meat-processing plant filed a collective action claiming that their employer violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to provide workers an adequate opportunity to eat their meals.

After a bench trial to determine liability, the court ruled that the employer failed to provide a full 30-minute meal break to employees. The time required to remove clothing and equipment before walking to the cafeteria and the time to return to the production line in proper equipment “substantially erodes the time available to eat lunch,” the court said in its order.

The union representing the workers was allowed to intervene in the case as an interested party to help formulate an appropriate remedy for the failure to provide a bona fide 30-minute meal break.

The court issued its order believing that a 30-minute meal break was required by law or regulation, even though Agriculture Department inspectors required that the production line stop for 30 minutes for lunch. The court decided to reconsider its order when the source of the 30-minute meal break from work was found to be a provision in the collective bargaining agreement that covered the workers.

ISSUE: Did the employer fail to provide workers with an adequate meal break from work?  

DECISION: The company provided workers with an adequate amount of time to eat their lunch, a federal district court said after reconsidering its order.

The Labor Department regulation regarding bona fide meal periods only applies if an employer can interrupt the continuous workday by providing a meal period, the court gave as its reason to reconsider its initial order.

The union claimed that the workers should be compensated for the entire 30-minute period as work time after the employees' expert witness showed that the time they were fully relieved from duty was so short that it did not qualify as a bona fide meal period.

Meal breaks of less than  30 minutes are acceptable  in certain circumstances.

However, in the first collective bargaining agreement entered into between the union and the previous plant owner, the union negotiated a noncompensable 30-minute lunch period for workers, the court said. A later agreement contained a provision proving employees compensation for clothes-changing activities, it noted.

The union accepted the uncompensated lunch provision knowing that workers' free time was less than 30 minutes, and no changes have occurred in equipment worn or walking distances, the court said.

The union also never pursued a grievance claiming a violation of this provision, the court noted.

The union cannot waive the FLSA rights of individual employees, and they are free to assert them in a collective action, the court said. However, the workers failed to prove that the employer failed to provide them with a bona fide meal period, it added.

Individual employee work times varied widely and could not be accurately measured and recorded, the court said. The health and physical characteristics of individual employees also affects measurement of work times, it said. The calculations provided by the workers' expert witness failed to adequately account for all of these variations, the court said.

Labor Department regulations provide that “insubstantial or insignificant periods of time beyond the scheduled working hours” that employers cannot precisely record can be considered de minimis if “the failure to count such time is due to considerations justified by industrial realities,” the court said (Castaneda v. JBS USA, LLC, 2014 BL 126612, D. Colo., No. 08-cv-01833 RPM, 5/6/14).

POINTERS: Bona fide meal periods do not have to be counted as hours worked, according to the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division. A bona fide meal period is one that ordinarily lasts at least 30 minutes and where workers are completely removed from duty.

Employees who might have to respond to an emergency during a meal period ordinarily would not have their eating time transformed into hours worked, but employees who are placed in a standby status for a possible duty call would be entitled to pay for their meal time, the department said.

Meal periods shorter than 30 minutes can be allowed under special conditions, the department said.

Time allowed for snacks or coffee breaks are treated as compensable rest periods rather than meal periods, the Labor Department said.

Several states have laws specifically addressing meal and rest breaks. Most provide for 30 minutes of unpaid time during meal periods.

For more information, see PAG's “Determining Hours Worked” chapter.

This analysis illustrates how courts resolve pay-related disputes. The names and dialogue are fictitious.