David works in a secretarial position for a very busy office. At least once a week, while David is trying to enjoy his lunch, his boss bursts through the door and leaves David with a pile of work to finish during his lunch break. While this scenario may seem routine in a busy workplace, employers should think carefully before imposing work obligations on their employees during meal breaks. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), an employer must compensate an employee at one-and-one-half times the employee’s regular compensation rate for any hours the employee works in excess of forty hours per week. 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1) (2015). The FLSA defines an “employee” as “any individual employed by an employer,” but certain employees may nonetheless be exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements. See 29 U.S.C. § 203(e)(1) (definition of “employee”); 29 U.S.C. § 213 (general exemptions for certain employees, including those employed in bona fide executive, administrative, and professional capacities); 29 C.F.R. §§ 541.100, 541.200, 541.300, 541.400, 541.500, 541.600 (exemption requirements). In those cases where the FLSA applies, the issue of whether time worked during a meal break counts toward an employee’s forty regular hours worked for compensation purposes is a fast-developing topic in employment law. In Babcock v. Butler County, the Third Circuit addressed the standard for determining when an employee’s meal break is includable in her hours worked under the FLSA, providing further clarity on how to resolve this often-tricky issue. Babcock v. Butler Cnty., 806 F.3d 153 (3d Cir. 2015).
The Predominant Benefit Test v. The Relieved of All Duties Test
The federal circuit courts have considered two alternative tests for determining whether meal breaks are included in the number of hours worked under the FLSA: the “predominant benefit test” and the “relieved of all duties test.” The relieved of all duties test – originally set forth in Department of Labor regulations that construe the FLSA – asks whether the employee has been relieved of all duties for the meal period. See 29 C.F.R. § 785.19 (2015). If not, the employer must compensate the employee for the meal break. Though many circuit courts have considered the relieved of all duties test, it is unclear whether any circuit has in fact explicitly adopted the test. The predominant benefit test is more widely utilized. Under the predominant benefit test, the court asks which party receives the “predominant benefit” of the meal break. If the employer receives the predominant benefit of the meal break, the entire meal break is compensable under the FLSA, and vice versa. The predominant benefit test is the majority approach, with nine circuit courts explicitly adopting it as the standard for determining the compensability of meal break time.
The Third Circuit Decision
Sandra Babcock worked as a corrections officer at the Butler County Prison. The prison’s collective bargaining agreement ensured its employees a one hour lunch break, of which forty-five minutes was paid and fifteen minutes was unpaid. During lunch, the prison prohibited Babcock from leaving the prison or changing out of her uniform. Furthermore, Babcock and the other corrections officers were not allowed to smoke, sleep, or run personal errands during the meal break. The prison’s mealtime restrictions were in place to ensure that, in the event of an emergency, enough corrections officers would be on hand to respond. Babcock sued the prison under the FLSA, arguing that, due to the prison’s mealtime restrictions, every minute of her lunch break should count toward her weekly compensable hours.
The Third Circuit opinion explicitly adopted the predominant benefit test as the law of the Third Circuit. The court explained that under the predominant benefit test, the court’s task is to determine, under the totality of the circumstances, “to whom the benefit of the meal period inures.” The court recognized that, though the prison placed a number of restrictions on Babcock’s meal period, the predominant benefit of the meal period still inured to Babcock. For example, Babcock could eat lunch away from her desk, and could even request permission from her supervisor to leave the prison. The Third Circuit dismissed Babcock’s claim, holding that because Babcock enjoyed the primary benefit of the one-hour meal period, it did not count toward the number of hours she worked for compensation purposes under the FLSA.
Implications in the First Circuit
The First Circuit is one of the few circuits that, as of today, have not yet adopted a particular test for determining whether meal breaks count toward the amount of hours worked by an employee under the FLSA. However, lower courts in this circuit have applied the predominant benefit test to FLSA meal break cases. See, e.g., Harris v. City of Boston, 253 F. Supp. 2d 136, 144 (D. Mass. 2003); O’Hara v. Menino, 253 F. Supp. 2d 147, 155-56 (D. Mass. 2003); Botero v. Commonwealth Limousine Serv. Inc., No. 12-10428-NMG, 2014 WL 1248158, at *3-4 (D. Mass. Mar. 25, 2014); Raposo v. Garelick Farms, LLC, No. 11-11943-NMG, 2014 WL 2468815, at *8 (D. Mass. June 2, 2014). Although the First Circuit is not bound by the decisions of the district court and other circuits, the weight of authority in favor of the predominant benefit test suggests that the First Circuit may follow in line and likewise adopt the predominant benefit test for determining when a meal break counts toward hours worked for compensation purposes under the FLSA.