Under federal overtime law employers usually don't have to pay employee for meal breaks as long as the break last at least an uninterrupted thirty minutes, sometimes less under special conditions. But rest periods of five to twenty periods are considered compensable working time and must be counted by the employer. Federal law thus makes the duration of the break the key factor in whether it is classified as the shorter, compensable "rest break" or the longer, noncompensable "meal period." The reason for the time distinction is that a shorter break is deemed to predominately benefit the employer by giving the company a reenergized employee.
In Naylor v. Securiguard, Inc. a federal appeals court recently encountered an unusual employment law question at the intersection of noncompensable meal breaks and compensable rest breaks. Securiguard provides security services. Its guards receive two thirty minute meal breaks per shift. The overtime issue arose because Securiguard required its employees to travel to eat at a designated break area. That travel time counted as part of the employees' thirty-minute breaks. Some of the guards had twelve minutes of travel time, leaving them with only an eighteen-minute break. The guards were required to use the company car to reach the designated break locations that were not within walking distance. While in the car they were prohibited from eating, drinking, smoking, or talking on their cell phones.
The guards argued that the time they were required to travel to reach their designated break areas reduced their meal break time. They thus received less than a thirty minute meal break. Their contention was that breaks of less than thirty minutes are generally considered compensable working time. It followed that Securiguard should have paid them for those meal breaks that were less than thirty true minutes when travel time was factored.
The appeals court did not see the issue as so black and white. It noted that employees frequently must move to some extent to a designated break area before eating their meal. They thus don't always have a chance to eat for the full thirty-minute meal break. To the extent this transition time amounts to no more than a couple of minutes, it is incidental and does not undermine the noncompensable nature of the break. But at some point employer-mandated transition time becomes substantial enough that it may make the break more like the shorter, compensable "rest" period.
The court agreed with Securiguard regarding employees who had only a one-minute travel time to a designated break area. The court viewed the travel time as incidental and not defeating the noncompensable nature of the meal break. Those employees therefore lost their overtime case.
The court reached a different conclusion for those employees who had a twelve-minute roundtrip between their assigned duty station and the nearest designated break area, thus leaving those employees with only eighteen minutes to eat. The court stated that "[a] requirement that deprives the employee of the opportunity to eat during 40% of a thirty-minute break thus strikes at the heart of what we and other courts have recognized as the most important consideration: an employee's ability to use the time 'for his or her own purposes.' " Consequently a jury could find that preventing the employee from eating—ostensibly the main purpose of the break—for twelve out of thirty minutes during every break is a meaningful limitation on the employee's freedom. If that was the jury's conclusion, that would leave this category of employees with only an eighteen-minute, compensable meal break instead of a thirty-minute noncompensable meal break.