Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division announced that it had collected over $400,000 in back wages owed to employees of Walt Disney World in Orlando. Among other illegal practices, DOL alleged that Disney World failed to pay employees who worked through their scheduled unpaid mealtimes.
Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, employers can provide unpaid breaks and mealtimes to non-exempt employees. In most situations, the breaks need to be at least 30 minutes in order to satisfy the FLSA's requirement that the employee have sufficient time to pursue non-work activities. Shorter breaks will be considered compensable working time.
Also, for the employer to legally consider the break time as non-compensable, the employee must be completely relieved of all working duties. A secretary who eats lunch at her desk, and occasionally answers the telephones has not been relieved of work duties, and her meal break should be considered compensable working time.
In order to avoid situations where employees perform incidental work during scheduled break periods, employers often require employees to take the break away from their normal working area. The employee handbook should also contain a clear explanation that during such unpaid breaks, employees are not to engage in any work activity.
As in the Disney World case, when claims for unpaid break time are multiplied by a large number of employees over a two or three year period, and liquidated damages and attorneys' fees are added, employers can face very large financial penalties for failure to properly structure and monitor this unpaid time during the work day.