The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion on October 13, 2017, that serves to remind employers of the need to pay employees when they take short work breaks during their workday.
In DOL v. Am. Future Sys., Inc. 2017 BL 367399, 3d Cir., No. 16-2685, the employer had a “flex time” policy under which it allowed employees to take breaks “at any time, for any reason, and for any duration.” The company tracked employee breaks by monitoring when they logged off their computers, which they were required to do when on a break, and they were only paid while logged-on to their computers. While on their breaks, employees were allowed to leave their work stations and to use the time for their own personal benefit.
The Department of Labor (“DOL”) argued that the employees should have been paid for their short breaks taken during the course of the day, and the trial court granted it summary judgment. Although the employer argued that employees were free to do what they wanted while on breaks, the DOL relied on the language in the regulations for the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), which provide that rest periods up to 20 minutes should be compensable. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals gave “substantial deference” to the DOL since it is responsible for administering the FLSA, and it affirmed the granting of summary judgment for the DOL. The Court noted, however, that should employees abuse the “flex time” policy, such as by taking multiple breaks of 19 minutes in length, the employer could discipline the employees, but it nevertheless had to pay them for the break time.
This decision serves as a reminder to employers to pay employees for any breaks that are 20 minutes or less, regardless of whether the employees are free to use the time as they choose or to leave the employer’s facility. This is also a good time for employers to remember that any unpaid breaks, such as meal times, must not be interrupted by the employer or the entire meal period could become compensable.