Automatic Payroll Deductions for Lunch Breaks May Violate the Rights of Florida Employees
Nonexempt employees are entitled to be paid if they work through lunch. Yet some employers have a policy that automatically deducts a lunch period from the time an employee works each day, whether or not the employee stops working. Federal law makes that practice unlawful, and Florida employment lawyers are holding employers accountable when they violate the law.
Nonexempt Employees Must Be Paid for All “Hours Worked”
Some states require employers to give their full-time hourly employees an unpaid meal break. Like most states, Florida does not mandate a meal break for adult employees. However, most Florida employers are required to obey federal regulations that govern payment for hours worked during meal breaks.
The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires most employers to pay minimum wage to nonexempt employees for all “hours worked.” Employers must also give overtime premium pay to nonexempt employees who work more than 40 hours in a workweek. Most hourly wage employees are nonexempt, as are some salaried employees.
“Hours worked” includes all hours the employee is required or permitted to work. A nonexempt employee cannot “volunteer” to work extra hours for no pay.
Meal Period Regulations
Federal regulations specify that “bona fide” meal periods do not count as hours worked, provided that the employee is “completely relieved from duty for the purposes of eating regular meals.” See 29 CFR 785.19. If the employee performs any job duties while eating (such as answering the employer’s telephone or watching a pressure gauge) or is interrupted to answer an employer’s work-related questions (or for any other job-related reason), the employee has not been “completely relieved from duty” and must be paid for the meal period. Even if the employee volunteers to sit at his desk during a lunch break so he can greet customers who walk into the business, the employee must be paid for the meal period.
In most cases, a “bona fide” meal period must last at least 30 minutes. Shorter breaks for coffee or to use the restroom usually count as rest breaks rather than meal periods. Employers must pay their employees for short rest periods. Employers violate the law when they lump together two 15-minute rest breaks taken at different times of the day and deduct 30 minutes from an employee’s pay for taking those two breaks.
Let’s look at an example to understand how the meal period law works. Suppose that “Donald’s Donuts” pays its minimum wage employees to work five days each week, starting at 6:00 a.m. and leaving at 2:30 p.m. The employees are provided a daily 30-minute unpaid lunch period. If the employees work through lunch, they are working 42.5 hours a week while only being paid for 40 hours. That violates the federal overtime law, because they are entitled to time-and-a-half for the 2.5 hours for which they are not being paid at all.
Next, suppose Donald’s Donuts tries to solve the problem by cutting the hours of its minimum wage employees. They work the same 6:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. schedule each day but only work four days per week. If they work through lunch but the employer deducts 30 minutes per day for a lunch period, they are being paid minimum wage for 32 hours but are paid nothing for the extra 2.5 hours they worked. That violates federal minimum wage law.
Automatic Meal Period Deductions
Employers can easily follow the law by having employees clock out when they begin a meal period and clock in again when they return to work after the meal period ends. If they don’t take a meal period, they don’t clock out and will therefore be paid appropriate wages for all the hours they worked.
Some employers, however, do not use time clocks, while other employers argue that a “clock in/clock out” policy for meal periods creates unnecessary paperwork. Those employers sometimes create a policy that automatically deducts a time from the hours worked each day to account for a meal period.
An automatic deduction is not necessarily unlawful, but it can lead to an unlawful failure to pay employees for all the hours they work. Employees who actually use their full meal break and perform no job duties during the break are not harmed by an automatic deduction, because they are not denied pay that the law requires. Employees may be harmed, however, if they are not paid for time that they work through lunch because of an automatic meal period deduction.
In an effort to avoid FLSA violations, employers sometimes instruct employees to report to a supervisor whenever they do not take a lunch period so that the automatic deduction from their hours worked will be cancelled for that day. Courts have questioned practices that place the burden on the employee to make a record of hours worked, since it is the employer’s obligation to do so.
Even if the reporting policy is lawful, however, an automatic deduction may violate the law in other ways. For example, an employee may report that she worked during a lunch period and a supervisor may ignore the report. As a result, the employee isn’t paid for the lunch period. Or an employee may take the lunch period but the supervisor may interrupt the employee by asking the employee job-related questions. When that happens, the employee is working and should be paid for the lunch period. The employee should not need to ask for the deduction to be cancelled because the supervisor knows that the employee’s lunch period was interrupted. If the supervisor does not cancel the automatic pay period deduction for that day, however, the employee’s right to be paid will been violated.
Finally, some employers lump together a 30-minute meal period with two 15-minute rest breaks and automatically deduct an hour from the employee’s workday. Even if the employee took the meal period, deducting the two rest breaks violates the FLSA. And if the employee didn’t take a meal period, the entire one-hour deduction is unlawful.
The failure to pay employees who work during their lunch breaks can easily lead to minimum wage or overtime pay violations. When that happens, federal law provides important remedies. If your Florida employer has automatically deducted a meal break from your pay even though you are working, or if are not relieved of all job duties during your meal periods, contact an experienced wage and hour lawyer at Robert S. Norell, P.A. for advice about your rights.