Transit Time for Meal Breaks May Be Compensable

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By Jon Steingart

Sept. 16 — Contract security guards at U.S. Naval Air Station Meridian in Mississippi who were required to take 30-minute meal breaks away from their posts may be entitled to wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act for the time they spent in transit to break sites, a federal appeals court ruled Sept. 15.

Depending on which gate and shift a guard staffed, the time in transit could take one to 12 minutes of the 30-minute meal break, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit said.

The court affirmed summary judgment for the employer on the short trips, noting that there are other workplaces, such as retail settings, where workers “may have to move off the sales floor so customers do not see them munching on a sandwich.”

But it reversed summary judgment on claims arising from the longer travel times. There's a point where “employer-mandated transition time becomes substantial enough” that its predominant beneficiary is the employer, not the employee, the court said.

Judge Gregg Costa wrote the court's opinion, joined by Judges Thomas M. Reavley and Edward C. Prado.

Meal Breaks Held in Designated Areas

Guards usually worked eight-hour shifts with two scheduled 30-minute meal breaks. A colleague would relieve the guard, who was required to go to one of several designated locations for the duration of the break so it wouldn't appear as though guards were “shirking their security duties,” the court said. Although they were away from their posts, guards were required to remain armed and in uniform.

The court said employees could forgo eating during their meal breaks “and just go for a thirty-minute walk.” The court distinguished an employee's opportunity to make this choice from “an employer requirement that an employee travel to a separate location before she is allowed to eat” and said its ruling only addressed the latter.

Labor Department regulations implementing the FLSA distinguish between rest breaks and meal periods, the court said. It explained that rest breaks, which are compensable periods of roughly five to 20 minutes, are “periods of short duration” that promote the employee's efficiency. Meal periods, on the other hand, are longer stretches of 30 minutes or more that aren't compensable because they “are not worktime.”

Employees often can't eat during an entire meal period because it may take time to go to a break area at or away from the workplace, the court said. It found that some workers, such as office workers, don't need to change locations for their meal breaks and can “thus take full advantage of a thirty-minute break (to the extent one can be on ‘break' at her desk).”

But employees in other settings must relocate, the court said. It found that when transit time lasts just a few minutes, “it is incidental and does not undermine the noncompensable nature of the break.”

‘Meaningful Limitation' on Guards' Freedom

Addressing longer periods, the court cited its decision in Bernard v. IBP, Inc. of Nebraska, 154 F.3d 259, 4 WH Cases 2d 1604 (5th Cir. 1998). In that case, the court said “[t]he critical question is whether the meal period is used predominantly or primarily for the benefit of the employer or for the benefit of the employee.” The “predominant benefit” test includes four factors:

• whether the employees “are subject to real limitations on their personal freedom”;

• whether restrictions are placed on the worker’s activities during those times;

• whether the employee is still responsible “for substantial work-related duties”; and

• how often the time is actually interrupted by work-related duties.

 

Unlike in Bernard, where the burdens on employees' time were unpredictable, the burdens on the security guards' time occurred “every meal break … and lasted a fixed period of time,” the court said. This encompasses “the most important consideration: an employee's ability to use the time ‘for his or her own purposes.' ”

Because the break's purpose was to allow time for a security guard to eat, a jury could find that preventing this for 12 minutes of every 30-minute break “is a meaningful limitation on the employee's freedom,” the court said. Additionally, “if a jury concludes that the twelve minutes predominately benefited” the employer, the court said, the 18-minute period that remains would fall within the threshold for a meal break.

In that situation, the time would be compensable because its purpose would be to promote workers' efficiency, which would “benefit the employer with rejuvenated and nourished employees,” the court said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jon Steingart in Washington at jsteingart@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

Text of the opinion is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/DONALD_R_NAYLOR_ANTHONY_JENKINS_JAMES_E_BROWN_SANDRA_A_SKIPPER_MI.