Automatic Meal Break Deductions

The Legal (and Illegal) Ways to Deduct Meal Breaks Automatically

Requiring employees to clock in and out for every unpaid meal break is the safest way to ensure your company doesn’t inadvertently violate labor law by under paying workers.  But when you’ve got a crew out in the field, tracking breaks can become a logistical tangle.  Many employers cut back on the paperwork by automatically deducting a 30-minute meal break for any employee who works a full shift.  If you use automatic break deductions, however, it’s important that you follow the law precisely.  Otherwise, you could end up on the wrong side of an expensive lawsuit.

It is perfectly legal to automatically deduct meal breaks from a worker’s clocked hours.  But you run the risk that workers who end up working during some (or all) of their break will not be paid for all their work, because 30 minutes have automatically been deducted.  Companies that willfully or negligently allow this to happen could face expensive legal penalties.  If you automatically deduct meal breaks, it’s especially important to have appropriate break and reporting policies.

Seven steps to avoiding a lawsuit

  1. Require workers to report when they skip a break or when the break is interrupted. Your company should have a clear policy for workers to follow if they miss a meal break.  Whether you require workers to file a written memo or merely to report the aberration to a supervisor, it is important that there is an established routine for reporting when an employee works through a meal break.  Many companies play it safe by offering more than one way for employees to report a missed break.
  2. Schedule workers for full, 30-minute meal breaks. Minnesota law requires that employers give any employee who works eight hours or more a meal break.  This break can be paid or unpaid, but if it’s unpaid federal law says that it must be at least 30 minutes long. If workers end up taking a meal break that is less than roughly 20 minutes, you should probably pay them for the time, even if you have unpaid 30 minute meal breaks. It is easier to simply require the workers to take the full 30 minute unpaid break rather than needing to pay for shorter breaks.
  3. Don’t bother workers on break. In order for a break to be off the clock, federal law requires that it be entirely uninterrupted.  If workers are interrupted during a break and asked to do work (no matter how minimal) the entire break is generally considered compensable time.  To avoid a situation where workers end up working during their breaks, many companies implement policies that make it clear when workers are on break—for example, by requiring workers to take breaks in a location away from where that day’s work is being performed. It need not be a long way away, but far enough away that work isn’t inadvertently done during the break.
  4. Require workers to take uninterrupted meal breaks. Sometimes employees end up working during a break because they have to—unexpected, urgent problems arise or customers interrupt them to ask for assistance.  At other times, however, a worker may work during a meal break by choice.  If it is your company policy that workers get unpaid meal breaks, make sure employees understand that it is a violation of your rules to work during their break.  If workers are found to be working during their breaks, give them appropriate warnings and sanctions, so they understand that they are expected to be fully off the clock.
  5. Educate workers on your company break policies. All your workers should be told what breaks they are entitled to, whether the company will automatically deduct their breaks, and what the policy is for reporting when they don’t take a break.  If your company has a handbook or written training materials, they should explain your break and time tracking policies and what workers are expected to do to ensure their hours are tracked accurately.  These are also important areas to cover in any training or new hire orientation with workers.
  6. Only deduct meal breaks that employees take consistently. Automatic deductions are often appropriate for crews out on a job because everyone takes a break at the same time, and you can easily track the duration of the break and any interruptions.  But if your company has retail workers or supervisors who take irregular breaks, you should have a different system for deducting that time—such as requiring them to fill out time cards or to punch in and out when they go on break.
  7. Finally, pay workers for any skipped breaks! This should go without saying, but regardless of what your company’s policies are, if a boss or supervisor knows that an employee worked through his unpaid break, the company should make sure to pay the worker appropriately.

Over the last few years, automatic break deduction policies have led to a growing number of collective action lawsuits against employers, in some cases leading to settlements in the tens of millions of dollars.  But at the same time, courts have found that automatic deduction policies are legal if they are implemented properly.  This underscores the importance of following strict guidelines to ensure that if an employee skips a break or does work during it, they are paid for their time.

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