Unpaid Meal Breaks – Does It Pay To Eat?

Unpaid Meal Breaks – Does It Pay To Eat?

In a recent class action law suit brought by employees of a security company, the Massachusetts Superior Court described the legal standard to be applied when determining whether thirty-minute meal breaks constitute compensable working time.

In this case brought under the Massachusetts Wage Act, the employer Longwood Security Services Inc. (“Longwood”) maintained a company policy pursuant to which its employees/security officers were permitted take an unpaid thirty-minute meal breaks, but were required to stay in uniform, not permitted to leave their assigned location without permission, and remained responsible for keeping their radio on and responding to calls during the thirty minute meal breaks.

The parties presented opposing arguments to the Court on the legal standard to be applied when determining whether the aforementioned meal break time is compensable. The plaintiffs/employees argued that the standard for determining whether a meal break is compensable working time should follow the “relieved from duties” test, derived from the Code of Massachusetts Regulations (“CMRs”). Specifically, 454 CMR § 27.02 defines “working time” as: “all time during which an employee is required to be on the employer’s premises or to be on duty, or to be at the prescribed work site or at any other location, and any time worked before or after the end of the normal shift to complete the work. Working time does not include meal times during which an employee is relieved of all work-related duties”

The Defendant/employer Longwood argued that the legal standard to determine whether meal break time is compensable should be based on the federal Fair Labor Standards Act’s (“FLSA”) “predominance” test. Under the FLSA’s predominance test, time is compensable only if the activities the employee is engaged in during the time in question are predominantly for the benefit of the employer. Using the test, Longwood argued that the Court should find the meal break time in question is not compensable because although there may have been some restrictions on the employees, the time was used by the employees predominantly for their own benefit.

The Superior Court ultimately decided for the plaintiffs/employees and held that because the plain unambiguous language of the Massachusetts statutes and regulations govern the legal standard for liability that there was no reason to look to interpretations of federal law under the FLSA.
Although the Superior Court’s decision was a win for the plaintiffs, the case is now scheduled to proceed trial to determine whether the security officers were relieved of all duties during the thirty-minute meal break. Regardless of the ultimate outcome of this case, it should serve as an important reminder to all employers. If employees are not fully relieved of their duties during an unpaid 30 minute meal break, the employer may end up liable for treble the unpaid amount under Massachusetts’ strict liability wage laws.

If you are an employee who is required to work through your meal break, contact Attorney Shafran to discuss your rights under the Massachusetts Wage and Hour laws.

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