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Who’s paying for lunch?

Clarity from the Sixth Circuit on what is and is not compensable time

January 12, 2015

Last week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals clarified the circumstances under which employees are not required to be compensated during meal breaks. In Ruffin v. MotorCity Casino, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court and held that MotorCity Casino did not need to pay its security guards for meal breaks even though the guards had to stay on premises, monitor two-way radios and respond if emergencies arose during those breaks.

Consistent with prior cases addressing the compensability of break time under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Court of Appeals asked whether the break predominantly benefited the employer or the employee. To determine this, the court looked at the totality of the circumstances, with special attention to: (1) whether monitoring one’s radio during the break was a “substantial job duty,” requiring guards to give up a substantial measure of their time and effort; (2) the frequency of interruptions; and (3) whether the requirement to stay on campus is an indirect way of extracting unpaid work from the employee.

While continuously monitoring their radios exposed guards “to a steady stream of work-related radio chatter,” the court concluded that the activity was de minimis, not substantial. It reasoned that the guards spent their break time only peripherally monitoring their radios while socializing, eating, reading, watching television, smoking, playing cards, surfing the web, or conducting personal business. As to the second factor, interruptions were “essentially unheard of.” Guards testified to leaving their break for an emergency very rarely, with specific testimony ranging from approximately once per year to not at all. As to the third factor, that the security guards had to stay on the premises, it did not suggest they were spending their time primarily for the Casino’s benefit. Enjoying myriad activities unrelated to work, the guards spent their break time “adequately and comfortably,” predominantly for their own benefit.

This case provides clarity to employers in determining what meal-related activities will be or will not be considered compensable under the FLSA. For more information or guidance on structuring employee compensation to comply with the FLSA, please contact one of Honigman’s Labor and Employment attorneys.