Employers are generally not required to pay employees for lunch (meal) breaks. However, for non-payment to be lawful, the employee must be totally disengaged from working. Put simply, this means the employee is to have no responsibility during an unpaid meal break. Think of the hotel front desk clerk who takes his lunch break in a private back room. In that instance, it is likely legal for the employer not to pay for the lunch break. But the same clerk who eats a sandwich at the front desk and must answer the phone when it rings is not totally disengaged from work, and should be paid for his lunch time.
The exception to the above may be workers who have to monitor radios/pagers/cell phones. A federal appeals court has held that casino security guards who take breaks in a back room, off the casino floor, but still have to monitor their radios in the event of a large-scale emergency (fight, theft, fire, ect.) were not required to be paid for their meal breaks. But emergency personnel are the exception and for most employees the question is whether or not they are totally disengaged from work during the break.
The other consideration is employees who occasionally have to work through meal breaks, but the employer uses timekeeping software that automatically deducts a break. Imagine a worker at an urgent care clinic who normally eats lunch away from patients in a back room. However, one day the clinic is especially busy and the worker does not have time to eat. In that instance, the employee worked a full day, but was only paid for a full day less the automatically deducted meal break. If that employer has an established policy and procedure for employees to report times they had to work through lunch, the employee must follow the policy to get paid for the meal break that didn’t happen. However, if the employer still refuses to pay the employee, that employer may have committed a wage and hour violation.
If you believe your employer has an unlawful policy or practice regarding paid meal breaks, please call the lawyers of Minnillo & Jenkins for a free and confidential initial consultation.
Written content provided by Labor and Employment attorney Robb S. Stokar