Most Massachusetts employers are required by law to provide “meal breaks” for their employees. However, in many industries, it isn’t always feasible for employees to leave the premises during lunch or even to stop working while they’re eating. If employees work through their meal breaks, must they be paid for that time? What if they only spend a few minutes working? Or what if they don’t have to work but are required to remain on the premises and on call? A recent case from the Massachusetts Superior Court clarifies the standard that should be used to determine if you must pay employees for “working” meal breaks under the Commonwealth’s wage and hour laws.
30 Minutes of Free Time?
Longwood Security Services, Inc., is s private security firm that provides security at sites throughout Boston, including housing developments, hospitals, and colleges.
Under Massachusetts law, Longwood is required to provide its employees a 30-minute unpaid meal break during shifts longer than 6 hours, and Longwood’s policy permitted security officers to take an unpaid meal break of “up to” 30 minutes each shift. According to the employees, Longwood simply assumed that all security officers took their required breaks, so it automatically deducted 30 minutes from each employee’s daily working time.
During Longwood employees’ lunch breaks, however, security officers were required to remain in uniform and were not allowed to leave their assigned sector without permission. Longwood’s written policy also required security officers to keep their radios on while they were on break and respond to calls at all times, even if the calls came in during their meal breaks.
Three officers sued Longwood, alleging two violations of the Massachusetts Wage Act. First, they claimed the company failed to pay them for their “working” meal breaks, in violation of Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 149, § 148, which requires employers to pay employees for all hours worked.
Second, they alleged that Longwood failed to pay them overtime for weeks in which they would have worked more than 40 hours if their time spent on “working” meal breaks had been included in the overtime calculation. The officers argued that violated Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 151, § 1A, which requires employers to pay nonexempt employees 1½ times their hourly rate for all hours worked over 40 per week.
The officers filed suit in Massachusetts Superior Court on behalf of themselves and all “similarly situated” employees, meaning other security officers who had also performed work during uncompensated meal breaks. Longwood asked the court to dismiss the case before it was heard by a jury, but the court refused.
Court Adopts Strict Standard
According to the court, the entire outcome of the case hinged on a single question: whether the security officers’ lunch breaks were “compensable working time” under the Wage Act. The parties disagreed about how to determine whether the officers were entitled to compensation for their meal breaks.
The officers argued that the correct test was the “relieved of all duties” test, which asks whether the employee was completely relieved of all work-related duties during the meal break. By contrast, Longwood argued that the test should be the “predominant benefit” test, which asks whether the meal break was spent “predominantly for the benefit of the employer or the employee.”
The court recognized that this is the first time a Massachusetts court has been asked to resolve this issue. The “predominant benefit” test is the standard used by the majority of federal courts to determine the compensability of meal breaks under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). However, the “relieved of all duties” test is still applied in a fair number of jurisdictions. The U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island) has yet to adopt one test over the other, but federal trial courts in the 1st Circuit have generally adopted the “predominant benefit” test.
The court considered Longwood’s argument that the Wage Act should be interpreted using the same test adopted by Massachusetts federal courts under the FLSA, but it rejected that argument, concluding that differences between federal and state law require the application of a different test. Federal courts interpret federal statutes and follow federal regulations, but those statutes and regulations don’t necessarily apply to Massachusetts employers. In general, federal laws like the FLSA set a “floor”; states are free to make their laws more generous if they so choose. As a result, Massachusetts courts can look to the language of applicable state statutes and regulations when they interpret wage and hour law.
The court examined the language of the Wage Act and its related regulations to determine which test should be applied. Regulations from the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards define “working time,” in relevant part, 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 [worksite] or at any other location . . . [, not including] meal times during which an employee is relieved of all work-related duties.”
The regulations further define “on-call time” as compensable working time “unless the employee is not required to be at the [worksite] or another location, and is effectively free to use his or her time for his or her own purposes.”
Relying on those Massachusetts regulations, the court held that meal breaks are compensable working time under Massachusetts wage and hour law unless the employee is completely relieved of all work-related duties. Importantly, the court didn’t make any finding regarding liability. Instead, it will be up to a jury to apply the “relieved of all duties” test to the facts of the case to determine whether the officers were relieved of all work-related duties during their meal breaks. Devito v. Longwood Security Services (Mass. Sup. Ct., 2016).
Lessons for Massachusetts Employers
Although this holding is a trial court decision, its logic is pretty strong and supported by clear, unambiguous language in the applicable regulations. Because the “relieved of all duties” test is much stricter than the “predominant benefit” test, employers need to understand that a meal period may be considered compensable time if an employee performs even a few minutes of work during his meal break, such as answering a customer call. Meal breaks may also be compensable if you merely restrict the employee’s break time in some fashion, such as requiring her to remain on call during lunch.
Don’t forget that Massachusetts imposes treble (triple) damages for violations of the Wage Act, in addition to interest, costs, and attorneys’ fees, all of which can dramatically increase your potential liability. For example, a single employee earning the minimum wage of $11 who isn’t paid for five 30-minute meal breaks each week could be owed up to $27.50 in lost weekly wages—and up to $41.25 per week if the lost time is overtime hours.
When the damages are calculated annually and tripled as required under the Wage Act, a single employee could be owed between $4,290 and $6,435 per year. In workplaces with many employees subject to the same deduction policy, as is the case for Longwood, class action damages awards could easily top six figures or more.
Given the high stakes, you should be sure to review your meal break policies and practices to determine if any changes are needed in light of the court’s decision. Additionally, managers, supervisors, and others with day-to-day control over the business should actively encourage employees to take their full breaks, perhaps even monitoring those breaks, because even a few minutes of work could render the entire meal break compensable.
Further, you should be cautious about placing restrictions on an employee’s break time, such as limiting his ability to leave the worksite or requiring employees to remain on call, because any minor restrictions could make the entire meal period compensable.
Finally, if you still use an automatic-deduction system for meal breaks, consider “auditing” the time cards of all employees who were subject to automatic break deductions in case their meal breaks should have been compensated. If you discover uncompensated “working” meal breaks, you should strive to pay any mistakenly withheld wages earned as soon as practicable. You may be able to avoid treble (triple) damages by paying any outstanding wages earned before the employee files suit.
You should also consider abandoning the automatic-deduction system altogether because such a system may not meet your record-keeping responsibilities under the Wage Act and may significantly increase your risk for claims of unpaid regular and overtime wages. As always, discuss any questions about meal breaks, compensable working time, and Wage Act compliance with your labor and employment counsel.
Stefanie M. Renaud is an associate at the firm of Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C and an editor of Massachusetts Employment Law Letter. Stefanie can be reached at 413-737-4753 or email@example.com.