The Dangers of Automatic Meal Deductions

Lunch Box cafe

Photo Credit: R.K. Richardson

Many time and attendance software packages and programmable clocks offer the option of configuring automatic meal break deductions. At first blush, it sounds tempting. No more worries about employees forgetting to clock in and out at their lunch break period. Everything gets taken care of “automatically,” untouched by human hands. So let’s all go configure our systems and clocks to automatically deduct lunch breaks, eh?

Whoa — not so fast! The automatic lunch deduction may just turn out to be more trouble than it’s worth for you.

“Completely Relieved of Duties”

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) you can exclude meal breaks from compensable time, but only if the employee is completely relieved of duty for at least 30 minutes. This means not only are they not working at their regular job functions, they also can’t be monitoring a pager, catching up on paperwork or reading work emails on their Blackberry. “Completely relieved” under the FLSA means just what it says: completely relieved of work-related duties, for at least one uninterrupted half hour.

If an employee performs any work-related duties at any time during their meal break, the law says they haven’t been “completely relieved.” And, depending on when, how and for how long the break was interrupted, this can potentially render the entire meal period compensable, not just the actual time the employee spent working.

This makes an automatic meal deduction troublesome, particularly in departments or organizations where employees are frequently expected to “drop everything” to respond to urgent situations, such as in healthcare faciliites, customer service departments or technical support groups.

What To Do?

Working LunchFirst and foremost, if you’re thinking of configuring an automatic meal deduction, consider carefully whether the time you might save from the automation might not be offset by the hassle of making sure you override the deduction in each case where an employee didn’t get their full break. You will likely find it’s much easier in the long run to have overtime-eligible employees simply clock in and out when they take their meal breaks.

Beyond that, there are a few things you should consider to help limit your liability:

  • Review your work policies in light of your state and local laws. While the FLMA allows employees to work through a break (as long as they get paid), some state laws mandate meal and/or rest breaks. If you are located in one of these states, you are required to relieve your employees of work duties during these breaks. Asking or allowing employees to work during their meal break may be a violation of your state’s labor laws.
  • Make sure your employee policies clearly prohibit nonexempt employees from working “off the clock,” including during breaks. Make sure supervisors are aware of and enforce these policies. Even something as apparently minor as responding to a business-related text message during a break can trigger an FLSA liability. If employees are going to perform any work, they must accurately record the time.
  • On a related note, ensure both supervisors and payroll have some method of proactively determining if an employee has worked during a break so that employee can be properly paid, even if the employee forgets to clock in or otherwise notify anyone. You can discipline the employee for their failure to follow your time reporting procedures, but their failure to report will not necessarily get you off the hook for paying them for their work.

A combination of employee education, supervisory diligence and a well-configured (and properly-used) time and attendance tracking system can go a long way toward protecting you from unintended liability.

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