Occasionally, a client will ask if they are required to pay employees for lunch breaks. The answer is: “It depends.” Employers are not required to provide employees with any kind of breaks, including “lunch breaks,” “rest breaks” or “smoke breaks.” Nevertheless, if an employer provides breaks, the Fair Labor Standards Act generally requires that employees receive pay for “short breaks” of 20 minutes or less. The FLSA does not require pay for “bona fide lunch breaks.”
So, what is a “bona fide lunch break”? In the Eleventh Circuit (which reviews cases from Alabama), a bona fide lunch break is one where employees are completely relieved from work for the purpose of eating a regularly scheduled meal. For some employers, this can be a difficult standard.
A 2014 case from Judge Sharon Blackburn demonstrates the burdens placed on employers. See Ledbetter v. Mercedes Benz U.S. International, Inc., No. 7:10-CV-0467-SLB, 2014 WL 1247988 (N.D. Ala. Mar. 24, 2014). In that case, workers at the Mercedes Benz plant were scheduled to have an uninterrupted 45-minute lunch break. Nevertheless, the evidence showed that they were “frequently” recalled during their meal period to perform their customary duties. Judge Blackburn refused to dismiss the case against Mercedes Benz and found that employees “were not completely relieved of their work duties and their meal breaks, even the rare, uninterrupted meal break, are compensable.”
In short, if an employer “frequently” makes an employee work during lunch breaks, then it is possible that the employee is entitled to pay for all lunch breaks — even uninterrupted lunch breaks.