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When Is A Lunch Break Not A Lunch Break?

November 18, 2019
Who knew that the 30-miute lunch break could be such a minefield for employers? A lawsuit in Massachusetts is again underscoring the often-complex nature of the state meal-break law.
The law is located in Massachusetts General Laws chapter 149, s. 100. The law states “No person shall be required to work for more than six hours during a calendar day without an interval of at least thirty minutes for a meal. Any employer, superintendent, overseer or agent who violates this section shall be punished by a fine of not less than three hundred nor more than six hundred dollars.” 
The law is enforced by the Fair Labor Division within the Attorney General’s office. Information on its enforcement is available from the Attorney General’s web site
While there is no need to pay the employee during the break, the text in the Attorney General’s web site makes it clear that the employee should be free from all work-related responsibilities during the break. The question of whether or not someone is free from responsibilities is the issue behind the lawsuit currently active in Massachusetts.
Two former employees, working as drivers, have claimed non-payment of wages based on the following two theories:
  • The employer automatically deducted a half-hour lunch break from drivers’ reported time, even though the employer knew or should have known that drivers did not always take a break.
  • The drivers are not fully relieved of work duties during ostensible lunch breaks and so should always be paid for that half hour. 
While the employees are seeking class-action status in both cases, the court decided that a class-action status was only appropriate in the second.
The business involved multiple locations, each with its own local manager. The court delved into the employer’s record-keeping behavior and found that it was woefully inconsistent and inadequate.
The court found that some managers appeared to coerce employees into working through lunch without actually getting the 30-minute meal break, while others automatically deducted the time whether or not the employee actually got to take it. In many different locations the employer appeared to require the drivers to keep an eye on their vehicle throughout lunch meaning that they were unable to enjoy their lunch in a way they might want to.
Other examples included a timesheet from one location that stated: “LUNCH HOURS ARE DEDUCTED” while another timesheet from the same location said lunch hours are deducted “UNLESS YOU INDICATE ‘NO LUNCH’ ON TIME CARD.” Two additional timesheets from unspecified branches do not reference a deduction at all. Drivers also stated that they had mixed experiences reporting that they had worked through lunch.
To the extent that the employees can prove the company was inconsistent in its record keeping, the employer is likely to be liable for all its employee’s unpaid wages, including the possibility of unpaid overtime if the unpaid lunch time pushes the drivers over 40 hours a week.
Employees who no longer work at the company have been included in the class because they worked there during the period of time that the employer may have violated the law. 
Meal break waiver
One option the employer could have explored would be to ask employees to sign a meal-break waiver in which they would knowingly give up their right to a meal break and be paid for it. As noted on the Attorney General’s web site, the law recognizes an employer’s right to ask the employee to do this, not to compel the employee to do it.
Given the record in the court opinion, it is clear this employer needs to train its managers how to properly track employee work time and not to coerce them into recording time incorrectly. 
Final thoughts
The employer in this case could face a fine for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) record-keeping requirements, along with claims for nonpayment of wages, including unpaid overtime. The company will also be potentially liable for unpaid overtime under the Massachusetts treble damages law. The Massachusetts minimum wage regulations also contain a record-keeping provision that this employer may well have violated, exposing it to other liability.
AIM members with questions about this or any other HR-related issue may call the AIM Employer Hotline at 1-800-470-6277.
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