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A class of corrections officers who claimed that they were not properly compensated for overtime worked could not proceed with their claims because the class could not provide evidence to suggest that the employer, rather than the employee, received the “predominant benefit” of the unpaid portion of lunch breaks taken, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.
Sandra Babcock’s employment as a corrections officer at the Butler County Prison in Butler, Pa., was subject to a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which provided that corrections officers would work 8.25-hour shifts, including a one-hour meal period during which 45 minutes were paid and 15 minutes were unpaid.
The prison maintained a meal period policy requiring that the officers ask permission before leaving the prison and remain in uniform. Further, the officers were required to be on call, in close proximity to emergency equipment and ready to respond immediately in the event of an emergency.
Babcock initiated a class-action lawsuit against Butler County, alleging that she and her colleagues were not properly compensated for overtime in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The class argued that the mealtime policy prevented them from using that time freely to do things like run personal errands, get fresh air or have a cigarette and that they therefore were owed overtime for the 15 unpaid minutes. The county filed a motion to dismiss the claim, arguing that the meal period was not compensable work because the officers received the “predominant benefit” of that time. Agreeing with the county’s argument, the district court dismissed the claim. On appeal, the class of officers argued that their claim was plausible under either test used to determine whether the class would be entitled to compensation—the “predominant benefit test” and the “relieved from all duties test.”
In reviewing the appeal, the 3rd Circuit noted that the majority of courts follow the “predominant benefit test,” which considers whether the officer is primarily engaged in work-related activities during the meal period. Further, when courts have discussed the alternative test, which asks whether the employee was “completely relieved from duty” during a meal period, those courts have instead reviewed the totality of the circumstances to determine whether the employee or the employer receives the primary benefit of the meal period. In this case, the appellate court considered that, in spite of the restrictions, employees could request to leave the premises and were permitted to eat away from their desks. The court also noted that the CBA provides officers with the benefit of a partially compensated mealtime and mandatory overtime if the meal is actually interrupted by work and that the FLSA does not require more.
The 3rd Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision dismissing the claim. The appellate court found that the officers received the predominant benefit of those 15 minutes as they were not primarily engaged in work-related duties during that uninterrupted time.
Babcock v. Butler County, 3rd Cir., No. 14-1467 (Nov. 24, 2015).
Professional Pointer: Employers should ensure that, even if required to remain onsite and on call, employees are not required to be actively engaged in work during unpaid break times. In addition, employers must be prepared to provide overtime pay when and if work interferes with an employee’s unpaid break.
Candace D. Embry is an attorney with Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin in Philadelphia.
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