It’s more cult classic than a summer blockbuster, but one of my favorite movies is 2000’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” starring George Clooney. To me, it is the Coen brothers at their finest. Loosely based on Homer’s “Odyssey,” the movie follows Everett McGill (Clooney) and his companions Delmar and Pete in 1930s Mississippi. At one point later in the movie, Everett finds his ex-wife and their kids. His daughter explains that her mom’s new beau is “bona fide:”
Penny Wharvey McGill: “Vernon here’s got a job. Vernon’s got prospects. He’s bona fide. What are you?”
Everett: “I’ll tell you what I am. I’m the paterfamilias.”
What does this have to do with wage and hour law, you ask? It’s that part about “bona fide,” particularly when it comes to meal breaks (I am still trying to apply “paterfamilias” to wage and hour law…).
A recent Fifth Circuit decision in Naylor v. Securiguard Incorporated demonstrates how even a favorable decision for employers–the Supreme Court’s Integrity Staffing decision on the compensability of non-integral activities–does not mean that every meal break under the FLSA is automatically bona fide.
One of the more common fact patterns involving whether meal breaks are bona fide occurs when an employer requires an employee to work into or during the meal break, or simply deducts 30 minutes unpaid without regard to when an employee actually is relieved of work. In a case of first impression, the Fifth Circuit addressed a related scenario earlier this month about the legal effect of employer-mandated travel that cuts a meal period short.
In Naylor, the Fifth Circuit reversed a district court grant of summary judgment, holding that a reasonable jury could find that a meal period cut short by employer-required travel that meaningfully limited an employee’s freedom would be compensable.
When a Meal Break Isn’t a Meal Break.
Securiguard was a Navy contractor that provided security for a naval air station. Its guards typically worked 8-hour shifts with two 30-minute meal breaks. The quirk was that the guards could not take their breaks at the their posts, but instead had to wait for another security officer in a company car to relieve them. Even then, the guards were not free to take a meal break, since company policy prohibited them from eating in the Once the relief officer arrived, the guard would need to drive to the designated break area in a Securiguard vehicle.
However, Securiguard imposed several important restrictions on guards during meal breaks. First, guards could not elect to state at the gate to eat, or to eat in the company car that the relief officer drove. Instead, the company required guards to travel to the break area first–remaining armed and in uniform throughout the break. The company prohibited eating, drinking, and smoking in the cars as well.
The time required to reach the closest break area depended on where the guard was stationed and which break areas were open at the time. According to the record in the district court, guards could be as close as a minute away or as much as 10-12 minutes. Despite the restrictions on their time and activities, the guards’ meal breaks began when the relief officer arrived, not when the guard reached the break area.
The guards argued that the required travel time to the break area, coupled with the substantial restrictions, shortened the break to a time period that no longer qualified as noncompensable. The district court granted Securiguard’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the company had not imposed “substantial duties or restrictions” on guards that would require compensation pursuant to the FLSA.
Application of the FLSA’s Meal Break Regulations
Under Section 785.19 of the regulations, bona fide meal periods “are not worktime,” provided that employees are “completely relieved from duty” for at least 30 minutes (absent special conditions). The Fifth Circuit noted that a 30-minute meal break often leaves less than 30 minutes of actual time to eat, since suitable eating areas may be located elsewhere in a facility, or even require leaving the facility. To the extent that any time spent moving from work to a break area to eat amounted to no more than a minute or two, the appeals court found the time incidental and noncompensable. Accordingly, the court affirmed the grant of summary judgment for guards with the shortest round trips.
Logically, though, mandatory travel time would eventually become substantial enough to shorten the actual meal break below what the FLSA requires. The Fifth Circuit found that guards with 10-12 minute round trips to break areas had raised factual doubts about whether the entire period qualified as a noncompensable meal break under the court’s “predominant benefit” test.
In the typical “predominant benefit:” case, an employer would permit an employee to eat or take a break throughout the prescribed period, but remain “on call” for any work issues that arose. There, “[t]he critical question is whether the meal period is used predominantly or primarily for the benefit of the employer or for the benefit of the employee.”
Here, the appeals court found that the district court had erred by ignoring evidence regarding the guards’ lack of freedom during their travel time. The court held that a reasonable jury could find a requirement that deprived guards of 40 percent or more of a 30-minute break while subjecting them to substantial restrictions meant that guards could not use the meal break “for his or her own purposes” as the FLSA required.
Upshot for Employers
Few employers likely place such extreme restrictions on employees’ use of break time. However, the decision does show that Integrity Staffing has its limitations. If a jury could reasonably conclude that security checks, lengthy travel to break areas, or substantial restrictions on time predominantly benefits an employer, then you could find that the remaining portion of the meal period falls below the time thresholds at which a break is usually deemed a bona fide meal period under the FLSA.
Employers whose employees work in high security environments, like naval bases or warehousing facilities, or anywhere that requires a non-trivial amount of time to actually get to a break area should consider whether the travel time is merely an inconvenience or potentially compensable.