In wage and hour law, as with any area of the law, there are issues that arise with elevated frequency at certain moments in time. (For example, a few years ago the courts saw a flurry of employee-versus-independent-contractor misclassification cases involving exotic dancers.) More recently, an issue before multiple different courts involves employers taking automatic meal-break deductions, regardless of whether the workers got their full break (or any break at all) or not. When this happens, it may constitute a Fair Labor Standards Act violation for which you may be entitled to compensation. An experienced Atlanta wage-and-hour lawyer can tell you more about whether your situation represents a violation of the law.
One of the most recent incidents occurred to our north, where Ohio workers initiated a class action against their employer, a medical company that owns hospitals, rehab centers, and clinics. According to the workers, the employer had a practice of automatically deducting 1/2 hour from their hours to account for each worker’s meal break. The alleged problem was, however, that the realities of the workplace (especially during periods of understaffing) meant that workers often had to work through lunch or were able only to take abbreviated meal breaks. Even when those circumstances arose, the employer still took the automatic 30-minute deduction, according to the complaint.
On that basis, the workers alleged that the employer violated the FLSA by failing to pay overtime wages the workers earned. The class that the workers proposed was an expansive one; namely, “all current and former hourly, non-exempt direct care employees of defendant who had a meal break deduction applied to their hours worked in any workweek where they were paid for at least forty (40) hours of work.”
This medical employer is hardly the first to encounter this sort of legal trouble. Last year, a California franchisee of a major fast-food burger chain was hit with a $2 million judgment in a case that alleged wage theft based, in part, on workers working through mandatory meal breaks.
Last month, the U.S. Labor Department recovered almost $89,000 in back wages for workers at a golf course and country club in central Ohio. The Wage and Hour Division’s investigation revealed that the employer “did not keep accurate pay records and made automatic deductions for lunch breaks even when workers could not take a break. These deductions led to the employer’s failure to pay employees minimum wage for all hours worked and overtime compensation.”
Automatic Meal-Break Deductions and Federal Caselaw in the 11th Circuit
There is also federal court precedent on the books that protects Georgia workers in certain instances of automatic meal-break deductions. In late 2021, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals (whose rulings control federal cases in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama,) ruled in favor of employees working for a security firm. The employees’ jobs involved lengthy periods of idle time that generally was compensable. The employer, however, took an automatic meal break deduction for which it did not provide compensation. The court’s ruling declared that if the workers’ idle time was generally compensable, then their meal breaks that occurred while idle must also be compensable.
Whether you’re a worker or an employer, understanding your rights and responsibilities — including whether or not an automatic meal-break deduction is legally permissible — can be crucial. The skilled Atlanta wage and hour attorneys at the law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert are here to help, offering clients in-depth knowledge of the law and clear, understandable advice about their legal options. Contact us through this website or at 404-873-8048 to schedule a consultation.