Compensable Meal Breaks Can’t Offset Owed Pay

By W. Kevin Smith and Jacob W. Crouse Nov 2, 2016
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An employer was not entitled under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to use the compensation paid to its employees for meal breaks to offset the compensation owed to those employees for performing duties before and after their shifts in calculating employee overtime, according to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The plaintiffs, who worked at a DuPont manufacturing plant, were required to be onsite before and after their shifts to don and doff uniforms and protective gear. DuPont is a science and engineering company that makes chemicals, among other goods, and is headquartered in Wilmington, Del.

The workers also were required to participate in "shift relief," which involved employees from the outgoing shift sharing information about the status of work with incoming shift employees. The time employees spent donning, doffing and providing shift relief ranged from 30 to 60 minutes a day.

The plaintiffs worked 12-hour shifts four days per week. They were provided one 30-minute paid lunch break per shift in addition to two nonconsecutive 30-minute breaks. Under the FLSA, DuPont was not required to compensate the plaintiffs for their meal breaks. The paid break time always exceeded the amount of time plaintiffs spent donning, doffing and providing shift relief.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs sought to recover unpaid wages, contending that DuPont had improperly offset compensation it gave the plaintiffs for meal breaks during their shift against any overtime compensation that the plaintiffs would be owed for the time they spent donning, doffing and providing shift relief.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Calculating Overtime Pay in the United States]

The district court ruled that the plaintiffs were not owed any additional compensation because the amount of paid nonwork time exceeded unpaid work time and the FLSA did not specifically prohibit such an offset.

The 3rd Circuit reversed the district court, finding that DuPont had voluntarily chosen to compensate its employees for meal breaks and that the meal breaks qualified as hours worked under the FLSA. As a result, those breaks must be included in calculating an employee's regular rate of pay against the employer's overtime liability. Because the offset utilized by DuPont did not fall within the enumerated categories for exempting such compensation, provided in the FLSA, it was prohibited.

The 3rd Circuit then sent the case back to the district court for further proceedings consistent with its ruling.

Smiley v. E.I. DuPont De Nemours and Co., 3rd Cir., No. 14-4583 (Oct. 7, 2016).

Professional Pointer: This case highlights the importance of addressing what is and is not compensable time in employment contracts and work policies. Here, the employer chose to pay its employees for generally noncompensable activities and by doing so it changed the way in which those activities were incorporated into the calculation of an employee's overtime compensation.

W. Kevin Smith and Jacob W. Crouse are attorneys with Smith and Smith Attorneys, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Louisville, Ky.

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