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

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.

DOL Publishes Guidance On Recent Amendments To FLSA Regarding Lactation-Breaks

Fact Sheet #73: Break Time for Nursing Mothers Under the FLSA

The DOL has released a new fact sheet, that provides general information on the break time requirement for nursing mothers in the recent Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“PPACA”), which took effect when the PPACA was signed into law on March 23, 2010.  The PPACA amended Section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  The fact sheet provides: 

General Requirements

Employers are required to provide “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk.” Employers are also required to provide “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.”

The FLSA requirement of break time for nursing mothers to express breast milk does not preempt State laws that provide greater protections to employees (for example, providing compensated break time, providing break time for exempt employees, or providing break time beyond 1 year after the child’s birth).

Time and Location of Breaks

Employers are required to provide a reasonable amount of break time to express milk as frequently as needed by the nursing mother. The frequency of breaks needed to express milk as well as the duration of each break will likely vary.

A bathroom, even if private, is not a permissible location under the Act. The location provided must be functional as a space for expressing breast milk. If the space is not dedicated to the nursing mother’s use, it must be available when needed in order to meet the statutory requirement. A space temporarily created or converted into a space for expressing milk or made available when needed by the nursing mother is sufficient provided that the space is shielded from view, and free from any intrusion from co-workers and the public.

Coverage and Compensation

Only employees who are not exempt from the FLSA’s overtime pay requirements are entitled to breaks to express milk. While employers are not required under the FLSA to provide breaks to nursing mothers who are exempt from the overtime pay requirements of Section 7, they may be obligated to provide such breaks under State laws.

Employers with fewer than 50 employees are not subject to the FLSA break time requirement if compliance with the provision would impose an undue hardship. Whether compliance would be an undue hardship is determined by looking at the difficulty or expense of compliance for a specific employer in comparison to the size, financial resources, nature, and structure of the employer’s business. All employees who work for the covered employer, regardless of work site, are counted when determining whether this exemption may apply.

Employers are not required under the FLSA to compensate nursing mothers for breaks taken for the purpose of expressing milk. However, where employers already provide compensated breaks, an employee who uses that break time to express milk must be compensated in the same way that other employees are compensated for break time. In addition, the FLSA’s general requirement that the employee must be completely relieved from duty or else the time must be compensated as work time applies.”

To read the entire Fact Sheet #73, click here.

5th Cir.: Defendants’ Purported Day-Rates Were Impermissible Where They Made Deductions For Partial Days Worked

Solis v. Hooglands Nursery, L.L.C.

This is an appeal from the district court’s order granting summary judgment for Plaintiff on behalf of various employees of Defendants.  The district court held that the Defendants violated the overtime and record-keeping provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  The Defendants appealed the district court’s order as it relates to its non-salaried employees, arguing that there were genuine issues of fact regarding whether their day rate plan was invalid under the FLSA and whether they acted in good faith.  Discussing each basis for summary judgment in turn, the 5th Circuit affirmed.

Briefly discussing Defendants’ purported day-rate methodology, the Court explained:

“Appellants first argue that there remained a genuine issue of fact regarding whether their day-rate method of paying their employees met the standards of 29 C.F.R. § 778.112. However, Appellants concede both before the district court and on appeal that their employees’ wages were reduced when the employees worked less than a full day. Accordingly, Appellants did not have a valid day-rate plan in use, and their failure to pay their employees overtime compensation pay for time worked beyond forty hours per week violated 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1).”

Next the Court discussed the issue of unpaid fifteen minute breaks.

“Appellants next concede that they failed to pay their employees for two fifteen-minute breaks per day, in violation of the FLSA. Nevertheless, Appellants argue that their purported overpayment to their employees as part of their day-rate plan compensated for the shortfall, pursuant to 29 C.F.R. § 778.202(a). However, as the district court properly held, Appellants did not employ a valid day-rate plan, because they reduced employees’ pay for hours they did not work. Accordingly, the district court properly concluded that Appellants remain liable for the amounts deducted from their employees’ compensable break periods.”

Last the Court discussed the award of liquidated damages, and the fact that the Court was entitled to award liquidated damages, notwithstanding a showing of both subjective and objective good faith.

“Finally, Appellants argue that even if they violated the FLSA by not implementing a proper day-rate plan and failed to pay proper overtime compensation, there remained a question of fact as to whether Appellants’ failures were in good faith, thus precluding an award of liquidated damages. Liquidated damages are awarded as a matter of course for violations of 29 U.S.C. § 207. See 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 260, however, a district court may decline to award liquidated damages if the employer demonstrates that it acted reasonably and in good faith. Heidtman v. County of El Paso, 171 F.3d 1038, 1042 (5th Cir.1999). Nevertheless, even if a defendant shows both subjective good faith and objective reasonableness, an award of liquidated damages remains in the discretion of the district court. See § 260; Heidtman, 171 F.3d at 1042. After reviewing the record, the district court correctly held that Appellants “ha[ve] submitted no evidence that [their] reliance on a bookkeeper with no managerial authority to ensure [their] compliance with the FLSA was reasonable.” Accordingly, Appellants have not carried their burden of showing good faith, and an award liquidated damages was proper.”