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DOL Opinion Letter Addresses Non-Compensable Meal Periods

Volume 5, Issue 5
May 9, 2006

Generally, employee meal periods are considered non-compensable time under the Fair Labor Standards Act. However, meal periods can become "working time" and require compensation by an employer if the employee is not "completely relieved of their duties" during the break. A recent Department of Labor Opinion Letter concluded that a lunch break was properly classified as unpaid time even though the employer: (1) required, for security reasons, the employees to remain in a particular lunch room; (2) prohibited a change of clothes; and (3) did not allow the employees to make telephone calls. The DOL concluded that the meal period was non-compensable because the employees were "completely relieved of their duties" and were given an uninterrupted break.

While the DOL employs the "completely relieved of duties" test, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will ask whether time spent during a meal period or break is "predominately for the benefit of the employer." Aeromotive Metal Prod., Inc. v. Wirtz, 312 F.2d 728, 729 (9th Cir. 1963). If an employee is free to use his break as he chooses, courts generally find the time to be non-compensable despite some restrictions, such as requiring employees to remain on property, remain in uniform, and even maintain radio contact. If an employee is interrupted on break by work duties, however, courts and the DOL are more likely to find that the break period is compensable because it has become "predominately for the benefit of the employer" or the employee was not "completely relieved of his duties."

The DOL's Opinion Letter serves as a reminder of the importance of ensuring that breaks are taken by employees (as required by Nevada law) and that they are not so restricted by work duties or limitations to render the time spent for the employer's benefit. Indeed, given the recent popularity of wage and hour claims amongst plaintiffs' attorneys, employers are wise to audit this aspect of their operations and train supervisors on how to ensure that the company is meeting this and other wage and hour requirements.

Employer Report articles are for general information only; they are not intended and should not be construed to be legal advice. Reading or replying to such articles does not establish an attorney-client relationship. In addition, because the subject matters and applicable laws discussed in Employer Report articles are often in a state of change and not always applicable to every type of business entity or organization, readers should consult with counsel before making decisions based on the same.