Lunch Time Trouble and Wage Deductions

According to both federal and state wage and hour laws, employees must be paid for their lunch breaks IF they are not completely relieved from duty. As explained by the federal Department of Labor, an

employee is not relieved if he is required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating. For example, an office employee who is required to eat at his desk or a factory worker who is required to be at his machine while eating is working. It is not necessary that an employee be permitted to leave the premises if he is otherwise completely freed from duties during the meal period.

That means that, if an employer is aware that an employee is doing any work during lunch, it needs to make sure that time is paid. If an employee is not completely freed from duties, that employee must be paid for their break time. If an employer asks an employee to, say, cover the phones during lunch, it needs to pay for all the time spent covering.

Another source of lunch time trouble comes from software that automatically deducts for lunch breaks. If there is no process set up for correction of deductions, the employer could face a wage claim, which in Maine can mean triple damages and attorneys’ fees. Under federal law, there can be individual liability.

Similar to the lunch time automatic deduction software is software that automatically subtracts time from hours worked for employees who work at places like call centers and have idle time between calls. In a court case in 2015, an employee sued after discovering that his computer deducted from his hours every time it was inactive more than two minutes. He reported the issue to the company, explaining that he had down time for mandatory meetings as well as assisting co-workers. The employer refused to change the system. That move was not a smart one since, under federal law, breaks of less than 20 minutes must be paid.

That doesn’t mean that employers must tolerate employees taking repeated short breaks expecting to get paid. The key under that circumstance is to address the conduct through coachings and warnings but not through wage deductions. Never mix discipline and wages — that is one basic guide when it comes to wage and hour law.

This article is not legal advice but should be considered as general guidance in the area of employment and corporate law.  Rebecca Webber is an employment attorney; others at the firm handle business and other matters. You can contact us at 784-3200 (telephone).  Skelton Taintor & Abbott is a full service law firm providing legal services to individuals, companies, and municipalities throughout Maine.  It has been in operation since its founding in 1853.