The compensability of meal and break periods is covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. Three basic rules apply.
First, the FLSA does not require employers to give meal and/or break periods. For obvious reasons, most employers do.
Second, bona fide meal periods of 30 minutes or longer are generally non-working times and are not compensable.
Third, rest periods such as smoke (subject to an employer’s right to have a smoke-free workplace) and coffee breaks are always compensable if they are 20 minutes or less.
There are several court cases which address whether a meal period is bona fide, and not compensable. For a break to constitute a bona fide meal period, the employee must be completely relieved of duty for the purpose of eating regular meals. The employee is not relieved of duty if he or she is required to perform any duties, including passive activities such as sitting by a telephone.
Employees who “volunteer” to work through meal breaks should either be prohibited from doing so or paid for their time. If the employee performs any work during the meal period, the entire period becomes compensable.
In a recent case, a group of hospital workers were permitted to advance a claim they were forced to work during unpaid meal periods. The evidence disclosed that they were prohibited from recording the time they worked during meal periods.
Additionally, the employer gave the employees tasks with set completion times that could only be met if they worked during their meal times.
Finally, the employees established that the workforce was understaffed, and there were insufficient workers to cover the time the employees were on meal breaks. Necessarily, the employees had to do their work during the meal break.