For the first time, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals adopted a test to determine whether or not a meal break is compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), our nation's federal wage and hour legislation.
The Second, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and D.C. Circuit Courts of Appeals have previously adopted the "predominant benefit test" to determine whether or not a meal period is compensable, a test that weighs the benefits each side gets from the break. Just recently, the Third Circuit also decided that this was the appropriate test to apply in Sandra Babcock, et al. v. Butler County, No. 14-1467 (3rd Cir. 2014). There, prison guards alleged that Pennsylvania's Butler County Prison ("Butler County") violated the FLSA because they were only paid for 45 minutes of their 60-minute lunch break. The prison guards felt entitled to the full hour because they faced a number of restrictions, including the need to have express permission to leave the prison and remain on call to respond to emergencies.
Since part of the predominant benefit test includes evaluating whether the employee was primarily engaged in work-related duties during breaks, Butler County pointed out that the guards received the predominant benefit. Further, a collective-bargaining agreement required officers to be partially compensated with overtime pay if their meal time was interrupted by work. While noting the lack of a test to resolve such a situation, the district court sided with Butler County and dismissed the case.
On appeal, the prison guards argued that in addition to the predominant benefit test, they met the requirements in the "completely relieved from all duties" test, which assessed whether or not the workers were relieved from all duties during breaks. However, the Third Circuit disregarded such argument and found the predominant benefit test to be the appropriate standard and, thus, affirmed the district court's decision. In so ruling, Circuit Court Judge Dolores K. Sloviter relied on a similar Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals' case to explain how collective bargaining agreements provide the appropriate compensation when an officer actually works during the meal period, but still assumes that the officer is generally not working during the meal.
However, Circuit Court Judge Joseph A. Greenaway Jr. dissented and argued that the majority improperly applied the predominant benefit test because they focused on irrelevant issues. Judge Greenway maintained that the core issue was that the officers were greatly limited in their movements because they had to be prepared to serve at a moment's notice and were subjected to other restrictions. Considering the totality of the situation, the officers would never fully be relieved from their duties during meal breaks. Consequently, Judge Greenway reasoned the fact that the officers did have the opportunity to ask to leave and were paid overtime for having to work during their break was beside the point.
The Babcock decision is significant, as courts within the Third Circuit now have clarity as to which type of test to apply in determining whether a meal period is compensable under the FLSA.
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Bultman, Matthew. "3rd Circ. Adopts Test to Evaluate Meal Breaks Under FLSA." Law360. Last modified November 24, 2015.