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3d Cir.: Employer Must Pay for All Breaks Shorter Than 20 Minutes Notwithstanding “Flex Time” Policy

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Secretary United States Department of Labor v. American Future Systems, Inc.

This case was before the Third Circuit on appeal by the employer.  The district court granted the DOL’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the employer’s policy of excluding time for breaks less than 20 minutes long violated the FLSA.  The Third Circuit agreed and affirmed, holding that the Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to compensate employees for breaks of 20 minutes or less during which they are free of any work related duties.

The court summarized the relevant facts as follows:

American Future Systems, d/b/a Progressive Business Publications, publishes and distributes business publications and sells them through its sales representatives. Edward Satell is the President, CEO, and owner of the company. Sales representatives are paid an hourly wage and receive bonuses based on the number of sales per hour while they are logged onto the computer at their workstation. They also receive extra compensation if they maintain a certain sales-per-hour level over a given two-week period.

Progressive previously had a policy that gave employees two fifteen-minute paid breaks per day. In 2009, Progressive changed its policy by eliminating paid breaks but allowing employees to log off of their computers at any time. However, employees are only paid for time they are logged on. Progressive refers to this as “flexible time” or “flex time” and explains that it “arises out of an employer’s policy that maximizes its employees’ ability to take breaks from work at any time, for any reason, and for any duration.”

Furthermore, under this policy, every two weeks, sales representatives estimate the total number of hours that they expect to work during the upcoming two-week pay period. They are subject to discipline, including termination, for failing to work the number of hours they commit to. Progressive also sends representatives home for the day if their sales are not high enough and sets fixed work schedules or daily requirements for representatives when that is deemed necessary.

Apart from those requirements, representatives can decide when they will work between the hours of 8:30 AM and 5:00 PM from Monday to Friday, so long as they do not work more than forty hours each week. As noted above, during the work day, they can log off of their computers at any time, for any reason, and for any length of time and may leave the office when they are logged off. Employees choose their start and end time and can take as many breaks as they please. However, Progressive only pays sales representatives for time they are logged off of their computers if they are logged off for less than ninety seconds. This includes time they are logged off to use the bathroom or get coffee. The policy also applies to any break an employee may decide to take after a particularly difficult sales call to get ready for the next call. On average, representatives are each paid for just over five hours per day at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

On appeal, the defendant-employer raised three arguments: (1) that time spent logged off under its flexible break policy categorically does not constitute work; (2) that the District Court erred in finding that WHD’s interpretive regulation on breaks less than twenty minutes long, 29 C.F.R § 785.18, is entitled to substantial deference; and (3) that the District Court erred in adopting the bright-line rule embodied in 29 C.F.R. § 785.18 rather than using a fact-specific analysis. The Third Circuit rejected each of these arguments.

The court rejected the defendant’s that their defendant’s “flex time” policy was not a break policy within the meaning of the FLSA, reasoning that labeling its policy as “flex time” was simply a means to attempt to illegally circumvent the requirements of the FLSA.

The court next held that the DOL’s break time regulation, codified in 29 C.F.R. § 785.18 is entitled to Skidmore deference, the highest level of deference given to an administrative regulation.  The court reasoned that the regulation was due Skidmore deference because: (1) the former FLSA specifically empowered the DOL to promulgate such regulations; (2) the DOL’s interpretation of the break time regulations has been consistent throughout the various opinion letters the DOL has issued to address this issue; and (3) the DOL’s interpretation is reasonable given the language and purpose of the FLSA.

Having determined that the regulation is entitled to deference, the court held that the regulation must be read to create a bright line rule and concluded that it does.  The court explained that “the restrictions endemic in the limited duration of twenty minutes or less illustrate the wisdom of concluding that the Secretary intended a bright line rule under the applicable regulations.”  As such, the court affirmed the decision below and held that defendant’s break policy which excluded time for breaks less than 20 minutes long violated the FLSA.

Click Secretary United States Department of Labor v. American Future Systems, Inc. to read the entire Opinion of the Court.

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