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Employer’s Meal Break Policy Wins Over Sixth Circuit


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By Gina Helou

In this recent case, out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the court reviewed an appeal from a Tennessee district court concerning an employee’s right to compensation during meal times under the FLSA.  The district court found an employer’s meal break policy, requiring hourly employees to separately record any time spent working during meal breaks if they expected to be compensated for it, was compliant with FLSA regulations.  In a big win for employers who have attempted to adequately track employee hours, the Sixth Circuit affirmed.

The Employee and the Policy

A hospital nurse who worked in an emergency room department did not have a regularly scheduled meal break, but instead took her breaks when her work-demands permitted them.  When she first started working at the hospital, she was informed through the employee handbook that all of her six-plus hour-shifts would include one unpaid meal break that would be automatically deducted from her paycheck.  The handbook also explained that if she missed a meal break, or if her meal break was interrupted, due to her work demands, she would be compensated for that time if she recorded and logged it on an “exception log.”

The nurse signed an acknowledgement stating she understood the hospital’s policy on meal breaks and the avenues she was to take in order to be compensated for time spent working during meal breaks.  She also acknowledged that she understood how and who to talk to about any improperly deducted time from her paycheck when she had worked through a meal break and signed the “exception log.”  She followed all of these procedures during her tenure at the hospital.  On more than one occasion, she signed the “exception log,” but the hospital still accidentally deducted the funds from her paycheck.  When the nurse alerted to proper individuals and departments, the problem was immediately fixed and she was compensated for the time worked.  


Later, the nurse complained on several occasions to her supervisors and the human resources department that she was missing meal breaks because of work without ever acknowledging that she was not being compensated for that time.  At some point, the nurse stopped registering her missed meal breaks in the “exception log.”   She also stopped following the appropriate avenues to correct payroll errors in order to be compensated for time spent working during meal breaks.  The nurse then filed suit against the hospital alleging FLSA violations because she was not being compensated for time spent working during her meal breaks.


The Ruling

In response to the lawsuit, the hospital alerted the court of the nurse’s failure to follow proper procedures - the same procedures she had followed in the past without issue.  The Sixth Circuit agreed with the hospital’s contention, finding that where “an employer finds a reasonable process for an employee to report uncompensated work-time, the employer is not liable for non-payment if the employee fails to follow the established process.”  

The Take-Away

Although the FLSA was established to protect employee wage earning rights, hours worked and labor standards, it is not wholly pro-employee.  Often times though, those Companies who find a reasonable means of creating an honest and beneficial employer-employee relationship still find themselves at the mercy of FLSA litigation.  However, as the Sixth Circuit has shown, if an employer’s policies and requirements are reasonable and within the guidelines of the FLSA, the law will find them in compliance with the Act, and the employer will win the day.


 

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