Although many hourly-paid employees are accustomed to “clocking-out” for their meal breaks, “automatic meal deduction” policies are becoming more commonplace. An employer who utilizes an auto deduct policy typically has its employees clock-in and -out only at the beginning and end of their shift. Then, the employer automatically deducts the employee’s meal break from their time entries. These types of policies are not in and of themselves illegal, provided you are actually receiving your full meal break. Many times however, these policies are not correctly implemented and the employees suffer the consequences.
Under Federal law, employers are not required to pay hourly-paid workers and other non-exempt employees for an uninterrupted, 30-minute meal break. However, if during your meal break you are interrupted to perform work related duties (such as helping customers, answering phones, responding to emails, driving to make a delivery, etc.), the law may require that you be paid for the entire 30-minute period. The standard as to whether a meal break is appropriate to deduct from time worked is whether the employee was “completely relieved of duty.” Thus, one who multitasks during the meal break (i.e., eats and works at the same time), is not completely relieved of duty and should be compensated for such time. Typically, in order to be deductible time, one must have had at least 20 minutes of time without interruption or multitasking. Something less than 20 minutes is not deductible – for example, a 15 minute smoking break. Such are regarded as de minimis. In an effort to comply with Federal labor laws, many employers implement an “override” policy which allows workers to report if they were interrupted during a meal break, or missed a meal break entirely. Violations of the law typically occur when these override policies are not in place, management discourages the use of the policy, or the policy is simply not followed by the employees.
If you are subject to an automatic meal deduction and are not paid when you are interrupted during a meal break or when you miss a meal break, you may be entitled to recover unpaid wages from a past or current employer. If you believe your rights may have been violated, you should consult with an attorney immediately. Remember, there are time limits within which actions must be brought—don’t miss your chance to recover wages you’ve already earned.