FLSA Claims for Automatic Meal Break Deductions Continue to Plague Long-term Care IndustryThe continued wave of FLSA lawsuits shows an alarming trend and emphasis on wage and hour related disputes both in the private and federal enforcement contexts. In fiscal year 2017, the Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division reportedly collected an average of $740,000 in back wages for workers per day. (https://www.dol.gov/whd/data) In the context of private litigation, the top ten most expensive FLSA lawsuits for 2017 reportedly amounted to over $180 million. (https://blog.tsheets.com) And, while the long-term care industry was fortunate to avoid this particular “top 10” list, it is far from insulated from wage and hour lawsuits in a variety of contexts, including alleged violations of the FLSA based upon the practice of making automatic meal deductions from the healthcare workers’ compensation.
Fundamental to wage and hour law is the FLSA’s requirement that employers must pay for all hours which it suffers or permits an employee to work. Meal breaks of at least thirty minutes in duration may be excluded from “hours worked,” and therefore unpaid, if employees are completely relieved of duty for purposes of eating a meal. Many organizations utilize automatic deductions for regular meal periods, an increasingly dangerous practice, particularly in the context of patient care workers in the healthcare setting. Many times employees, with mounting success, recall frequent and lengthy interruptions in their meal breaks to tend to patient or resident needs and the employer is left to try to prove the contrary. Several recent cases illustrate such scenario:
Cooley, et al v. HMR of Alabama, Inc. d/b/a Robert L. Howard Veterans Home (September, 2018). The plaintiffs are 44 employees of a nursing home, performing services as Certified Nursing Assistants and Licensed Practical Nurses. They filed suit against their employer, arguing that they worked without compensation during their meal breaks over several years. Specifically, the workers claimed that they routinely worked more than forty hours per week without full compensation because the company automatically deducted meal breaks from their pay even when the workers were not “completely relieved from duty.” The work allegedly performed during the meal breaks included “caring for patient needs” and “tending to patients.” Initially, the district court dismissed the FLSA claims, stating that the work allegedly performed was insufficiently described and too amorphous. However, very recently, the federal court of appeal reversed the dismissal, allowing all 44 plaintiffs’ claims to proceed in the litigation process.
Williams v. Bethel Springvale Nursing Home (July, 2018). The plaintiff, a Registered Nurse, was employed by the defendant nursing home for approximately two years. She alleged that, throughout that period, her employer engaged in various violations of the FLSA, including automatically deducting compensation from the employee’s meal period. The plaintiff alleged to have worked through her meal period on a near daily basis, without compensation. Following a bench trial, the court ruled in favor of the employee with respect to the meal time allegations, stating, “Given the corroboration from other former Bethel employees that nurses often had their meal breaks interrupted, and the fact that the plaintiff was the only nurse available to tend to patients’ needs and administer medications during the night shift, the court places some credence in plaintiff’s testimony that she often performed compensable work during her unpaid meal breaks…Given the testimony of all witnesses, the court finds an approximation that plaintiff worked through an average of one-half of each of her meal breaks reasonable.”
Ridley v. Regency Village Skilled Nursing & Rehab Center, (March, 2018). The plaintiffs claimed to be a group of “similarly situated” employees for purposes of asserting that they constituted a proper “class” or “collective action” because they all provided direct patient care and were all subject to the same policy surrounding meal breaks. The class included licensed vocational nurses, registered nurses, certified medical assistants, and certified nursing assistants. Regency’s timekeeping software automatically deducted thirty minutes for lunch breaks. The plaintiffs alleged that Regency knew that the staff often worked through lunch breaks and expected them to do so. The court recently declined to dismiss the lawsuit, as the allegations gave rise “to a plausible claim for relief.” Further, citing the plaintiffs’ evidence that they were subjected to interruption during their lunch breaks, the court granted conditional certification of the class/collective action.
Myers v. Marietta Memorial Hospital, (September, 2017). Plaintiffs alleged that the hospital’s policy of automatically deducting thirty minutes for a meal break for nurses and patient care technicians violated the FLSA. Importantly, the hospital had established policies by which employees could cancel the automatic deduction when unable to take an uninterrupted meal break. Nonetheless the court granted class certification because the evidence demonstrated that employees were at times not even scheduled for lunch breaks, managers were aware that employees were working through the breaks, and managers were actively discouraging employees from canceling the automatic deductions.