Federal Court in Tennessee Rejects Argument That Employees Should Not Be Compensated For Work During Meal Breaks

Recently, a federal court in Tennessee permitted a case to move forward that raises the question of whether the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) permits compensation for work activities that “bookend” a 30-minute meal break.

In Abadeer v. Tyson Foods, Inc., employees at Tyson Foods were required to remove, wash, and stow their frocks and other equipment during their 30-minute meal break.  This activity lasted from five to eight minutes.  They then needed to be suited and ready to return to work by the end of the 30 minutes.  The employees claimed that Tyson Foods automatically took them off of the clock during this time, even though they were not really at lunch.  The employees initially claimed that Tyson was either liable to them for the entire 30-minute period, since it was not a “bona fide meal period,” or at least for the work they performed during the 30-minute break, since it was part of a continuous workday.  They eventually discarded the first claim and kept the second, which was that work performed during the meal period was compensable.

Tyson Foods tried to argue that the employees’ complaint did not put them on adequate notice of their claims, but the court disagreed.  The company then filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the employees could not seek compensation for activities performed during the 30-minute unpaid period.  Tyson Foods claimed that, due to precedent set by the Sixth Circuit, employees were not permitted to “carve out” such activities and divide the meal period into portions that were compensable and noncompensable.  An employer in such a situation should not be held liable unless the employees failed to receive the “predominant benefit” of the entire period.

The court disagreed with Tyson Foods’ claims.  It began by noting that the FLSA excluded certain work-related activities from compensation, including traveling to and from the work site and activities that are “preliminary to or postliminary to” the principal activity.  Activities performed before or after the regular work shift are compensable as long as they are “integral and indispensable” to the principal activities of the employees.  The Department of Labor adopted a regulation that during meal breaks an employee must be “completely relieved from duty.”  However, the Sixth Circuit rejected that test in favor of the more flexible “predominant benefit” test.  Under that test, an employee is relieved of duty if he or she could pursue mealtime “adequately and comfortably, and is not engaged in the performance of any substantial duties, and does not spend time predominantly for the employer’s benefit.”

The court cited two cases that satisfied the “predominant benefit” test.  One involved a mail carrier who, while he had responsibilities during lunch, exercised them infrequently.  The other involved a workplace that actively discouraged working during the meal period.  The court noted that in both cases, the employees sought compensation for the entire period, not just the “bookend” time they performed work tasks.  The “predominant benefit” test did not apply to the bookend time claimed in this case.

Therefore, the court denied Tyson Foods’ motion for summary judgment and permitted the employees’ claim to move forward.

Parks, Chesin & Walbert represents plaintiffs in employment matters, including employment discrimination, wage and hour, FMLA, and more.  With offices in Atlanta and Nashville, we offer a client-centered philosophy and strive to accomplish our clients’ goals as if they are our own.  If you live in Georgia or Tennessee and need an experienced Atlanta employment law attorney, contact us today at 404-873-8048.

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