Unpaid meal time not covered by FLSA, Third Circuit affirms
Recently, Third Circuit after affirming district court’s decision has ruled that putative class of Butler County correction officers in the Pennsylvania prisons are not entitled to be compensated under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) for the fifteen unpaid minutes of their hour long mealtime periods.
FLSA doesn’t specifically address the issue of whether a mealtime is compensable or not. It was held by the Third Circuit that the “predominant benefit" analysis used by other circuits was the appropriate measure. Judge Dolores Sloviter while writing in the majority opinion stated that predominant benefits of the meal period belonged to the corrections officers and no one else.
In this case, the correction officers argued that they were not allowed to leave the prison grounds or run personal errands, sleep or breathe fresh air outside the prison walls without seeking permission from their superiors because they were always on call in case an emergency arises. Hence, they requested compensation for the full hour.
While deciding the case, Judge Sloviter said that although the officers face a number of restrictions during their meal period, when balanced, do not predominantly benefit the employer. She also pointed out to the collective bargaining agreement signed by the officers agreeing to fifteen-minute unpaid provision during meal break. She further noted that since the agreement is about to expire soon, it will afford a chance to the officers to think over it again.
Judge Jospeh A. Greenway Jr. dissenting in his opinion stated that the issue before the court was mischaracterized and understood to be regarding the payments made to the officers or them seeking permission to go out. Instead the issue was whether they are entitled to payment since they had to be prepared for any emergency at a moment’s notice for the entire meal period. He also pointed that the restrictions over movements were sufficient to state a claim under FLSA. He further cited the Second Circuit’s holding in Reich v. S. New Eng. Telecoms. Corp., 121 F.3d 58  wherein it was held that the presence of on-site workers for the entire meal period is solely for the benefit of the employer and in case of their absence, the company will pay others for the same services. Responding to Greenway’s dissenting opinion, Sloviter wrote that the approach taken by the court is consistent with the weight of the precedent cited by Greenway, collective bargaining agreement is also considered, not as a dispositive factor but relevant; and only a different conclusion is arrived at regarding the predominant benefit of the corrections officers’ uninterrupted mealtime period under the totality of the circumstances.
Sloviter further stated that some courts emphasize on the freedom given to employees to leave the premises whilst others focus on the number of interruptions an employee is subjected to. She also cited a decision by the Eleventh Circuit stating that in order to determine whether a meal period is a bonafide one or compensable meal period, it is valued on the fact whether employees are in fact relieved from work for the purpose of eating a regularly scheduled meal or not.