The Massachusetts meal break law is one of the most misunderstood workplace laws on the books. Violators may become liable for unpaid wages, overtime pay, multiple damages, and even attorney fees. This article explains the meal break law and best practices for staying out of hot water.
Meal Break Requirement
In Massachusetts, employees are entitled to a 30-minute meal break for each work period exceeding six hours. During the meal break, the employee must be relieved of all duties and free to leave the workplace. The meal break may be unpaid.
Giving It Up
An employee may voluntarily give up a meal break by (1) working through it, or (2) remaining on the premises during the meal break at the employer’s request. In either case, the employee must be paid for this time.
An employer’s liability under the meal break law may arise under various scenarios. For example, employees might claim that:
- They were forced to give up their meal breaks involuntarily;
- The employer “turned a blind eye” while they worked through meal breaks and, consequently, owes them earned but unpaid wages; or
- The hours spent in paid meal breaks were not counted as hours worked for overtime purposes, resulting in the employer’s failure to pay overtime wages.
The recent case of Vitali v. Reit Management & Research, LLC is illustrative. The plaintiff, Donna Vitali, was a bookkeeper for Reit, a property-management company. Reit exceeded the requirements of the meal break law by providing employees with a paid one-hour lunch break.
However, Reit’s new time-keeping system, Kronos, did not allow employees to record their hours worked during lunch. When Reit attempted to address this, employees found its instructions confusing and contradictory.
As complaints mounted, the company reminded employees that they were supposed to take at least 30 minutes for lunch. Reit, though, did not ensure that hours worked during lunch were properly recorded. Meanwhile, Ms. Vitali and others routinely ate lunch at their desks while accepting and carrying out work assignments.
Ms. Vitali filed a class action lawsuit. She alleged that by failing to record hours worked during lunch, Reit miscalculated her time for overtime purposes and, in turn, failed to pay required overtime wages. Ms. Vitali sought relief for herself and similarly situated employees under the Massachusetts Minimum Fair Wage Law. This law entitles a prevailing plaintiff to triple damages plus costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees incurred in litigation.
After a Superior Court judge ruled for Reit on summary judgment, Ms. Vitali appealed. The Massachusetts Appeals Court reversed the ruling and returned the case to the Superior Court.
The Appeals Court found evidence that Reit had “constructive knowledge” that employees were working during lunch without their work hours being recorded. Noting that good faith is not a defense, the Appeals Court emphasized that the employer – not the employee – is ultimately responsible for keeping full and accurate time records.
Recommendations For Employers
In light of the Appeals Court ruling in Vitali, employers should consider the following steps:
- Ensure that all wage earners who work shifts exceeding six hours are given a meal break of at least 30 minutes;
- If the meal break is unpaid, implement a system for recording each time an employee opts to work – and thus to be paid – during a meal break. This system might involve use of a signed waiver form.
- Make sure your time-keeping system records all hours worked during meal breaks for purposes of paying appropriate wages and correctly calculating total hours worked relative to overtime.
- Review and, if necessary, revise workplace policies to ensure that employees are aware of the meal-break system.
- Provide appropriate training to supervisors and managers.
Take a walk through the workplace. Are nonexempt employees eating at their desk while half staring at a pile of papers or their computer screen? If so, then it is time to address this issue.
Please contact us if you have questions about the meal break law or may need assistance with any wage-and-hour issue. We would be happy to help.