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Lunchtime Travel Could Make Employers Pay for Lunch Breaks

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 29, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Lunch breaks are the best time of the day. Workers get to rest and stuff their faces and employers don't have to pay them for that time -- so long as the break is about 30 minutes or more. Cut into that time, however, and you no longer have a lunch, you just have a rest, even if workers were able to chow down between tasks.

Take, for example, the naval base security guards who had their lunch breaks eroded by travel requirements. Since their employer required them to leave their post to eat, their lunch breaks were too short to be automatically exempt from pay under the Fair Labor Standard Acts, the Fifth Circuit ruled recently.

No Eating at Your Desk

Securiguard employed (you guessed it!) security guards, for the U.S. Naval Air Station Meridian, in Mississippi. Each guard worked an eight-hour shift with two unpaid 30 minute breaks for meals. Securiguard, however, didn't want the guards eating at their post, apparently worried that guards eating would give the impression that they were shirking their duties.

When the guards wanted to eat, they would have to wait for a relief officer to arrive and travel back to a designated break area. Depending on where the guards were stationed, that trip could take just a minute or nearly half of their entire break. No matter how long the travel took, however, guards were given only 30 minutes total.

The Department of Labor investigated Securiguard and fined them, but did not order them to pay backpay. As a result of that investigation, more than 30 guards sued, arguing that they were owed compensation since their lunch breaks were never valid 30-minute meal periods.

Who Benefited From the Break?

The FLSA allows employers to give unpaid breaks for "bona fide meal periods." According to Department of Labor regulations, these "rest periods" should ordinarily be 30 minutes or more, though "a shorter period may be long enough under special conditions." Securiguard argued that it fell under those special conditions and that the guards' suit must be dismissed on summary judgment.

Not every minute of a meal period needs to be devoted to eating, the Fifth Circuit explained. Factory workers will need to move from the floor to eat, teachers may need to leave their classroom. A few minutes of incidental travel don't change the nature of the break.

But there's a line that needs to be drawn. Travel of ten to twelve minutes, round trip, cut in significantly to a 30-minute break, the court found. The Fifth Circuit looked at who predominantly benefited from the meal period, employer or employee, and whether the employees were "subject to real limitations on their personal freedom" for the benefit of their employer.

Here, the guards claim that they could use no more than a third of their meal time for their own purposes -- enough to significantly deprive them of the "most important consideration" courts look at: their ability to use their own time as they see fit. Whether that reduction in break time predominantly benefited Securiguard will be up for a jury to decide, the Fifth ruled.

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