That headline makes no sense, right? Well, according to the Fifth Circuit, it’s possible that employees who are required to take meal breaks away from their posts (or desk or cubicle, I suppose), may be entitled to pay for the time they spend “in transit” to the break site. Naylor v. Securiguard, Inc., 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 16421 (5th Cir. Sept. 15, 2015).
Security guards at the Mississippi U.S. Naval Air Station Meridian are required to take 30 minute meal breaks away from their posts. Depending on the shift and the gate where a guard is stationed, the time in transit could take anywhere from one to twelve minutes of the 30-minute break.
Judge Costa put it this way: “Meal breaks have been a cherished feature of the American workday since the Industrial Revolution transformed the life of workers more than a century ago.” See generally Lunch Hour NYC, New York Public Library (June 22, 2012), http://www.nypl.org/audiovideo/lunch-hour-nyc (detailing the evolution of fixed meal hours since their introduction in the mid-1800s). Department of Labor regulations generally exempt meal breaks from pay requirements, but specify that such breaks ordinarily last at least thirty minutes. The employer in this case scheduled thirty-minute breaks for meals, but imposed traveling obligations that ate into the employees’ time for meals. The issue to decide then, is whether a jury could find that, because of these obligations, the breaks are more like mere rest periods and thus compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The court held that when transit time lasts just a few minutes, “it is incidental and does not undermine the noncompensable nature of the break.” But, where – as in at least some cases at Meridian – the time to get to the place where the break could occur was substantial, a jury could find a meaningful limitation on the employees’ freedom existed, and therefore the time would be compensable.
The court relied on its decision in Bernard v. IBP, Inc. of Nebraska, 154 F.3d 259 (5th Cir.1998), stressing that “[t]he critical question is whether the meal period is used predominantly or primarily for the benefit of the employer or for the benefit of the employee.” The “predominant benefit” test includes four factors:
- whether the employees “are subject to real limitations on their personal freedom”;
- whether restrictions are placed on the worker’s activities during those times;
- whether the employee is still responsible “for substantial work-related duties”; and
- how often the time is actually interrupted by work-related duties.
In Bernard, the burden on employee time was unpredictable. For the guards at Meridian, said the court, the limitation existed for “every meal break … and lasted a fixed period of time.” As such, it struck at the core of the issue: “an employee’s ability to use the time ‘for his or her own purposes.’”
The purpose of the break was to permit a guard to have time eat. A jury could therefore find that preventing the “eating” part of the meal break from occurring for 12 minutes out of every 30 minute break was “a meaningful limitation on the employee’s freedom.” Additionally, said the court, “if a jury concludes that the twelve minutes predominately benefited” the employer, the remaining 18 minutes would fall within the threshold for a meal break. Were that the case, the time would be compensable because the purpose would be to promote worker efficiency, something that would “benefit the employer with rejuvenated and nourished employees.”