The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has provided some certainty to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware employers as to when employees’ meal breaks can be uncompensated and when they must be paid. In a split decision that comes as a victory for employers throughout the Third Circuit, the court held in Babcock v. Butler County that corrections officers (COs) at Butler County Prison need not be paid for any portion of their one-hour meal breaks, because the time at issue is predominantly for the employees’ benefit.
In so holding, the court formally adopted the “predominant benefit test” for determining when a meal period must be compensated under the Fair Labor Standards Act. This test analyzes whether the employee or the employer enjoys the predominant benefit of the time at issue (i.e., whether the employee is primarily engaged in work-related duties), and has been adopted by the majority of courts that have addressed the issue. If the employee is primarily engaged in work-related duties, such that the employer receives the predominant benefit of the employee’s time during the meal period, then the period must be compensated. On the other hand, if the employee enjoys the predominant benefit of the time, then the meal period need not be paid. Under an alternative test, a meal period must be paid unless the employee is “completely relieved from duty” for the entirety of the break.
The COs in Babcock were given a one-hour meal period, and were not paid for 15 of the 60 minutes in question. They argued that the 15 minutes of unpaid time was compensable because they were required to remain (1) at the prison absent express permission to leave, (2) in uniform, (3) in close proximity to emergency response equipment, and (4) on call to respond to emergencies. The district court, applying the predominant benefit test, determined that the time was properly unpaid and granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss.
The Court of Appeals affirmed, noting that “[c]ourts have generally eschewed a literal reading of a Department of Labor regulation that provides that during a ‘bona fide meal period’ ‘the employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purpose of eating regular meals.’” The court went on to emphasize the fact-sensitive nature of the predominant benefit test, and concluded that the district court did not err in finding that the restrictions the plaintiffs highlighted did not predominantly benefit the employer.
Factoring into the court’s decision was the existence of a collective bargaining agreement that provided for a partially compensated meal period and mandatory overtime if the meal period is interrupted by work. The majority reasoned that “[t]he CBA, then, assumes that generally an officer is not working during a meal period, but provides for appropriate compensation when an officer actually does work during the meal.” The majority was careful to note, however, that the collective bargaining agreement was not dispositive of the issue, but rather was a factor taken into consideration. The majority further emphasized that the court was not holding that a collective bargaining agreement is a defense to liability under the FLSA. “Rather, we consider the agreed-upon characterization of the fifteen-minute unpaid meal break period as a factor in analyzing to whom the predominant benefit of the period inures.”
Employers now know that federal courts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware will analyze meal period claims under the FLSA using the more employer-friendly “predominant benefit” test. In the wake of the Babcock decision, and as we move into a new calendar year, employers should carefully analyze their meal period policies and practices. These policies should make clear that any unpaid meal period is intended to primarily benefit the employee. In practice, employers that do not pay employees for meal periods must ensure that, on balance, employees are not primarily engaged in work-related duties during their meal breaks. And while a provision in a collective bargaining agreement addressing compensation for meal break time will likely weigh in the employer’s favor should its meal break pay practice be challenged, employers cannot assume that such a provision will serve as a silver bullet.