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8th Circuit says keeping workers on-call is OK for unpaid meal breaks

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals is the federal circuit court that interprets federal law for Minnesota and six other states in the region. So whenever disputes arise over how to read federal employment laws, the 8th Circuit gets the final say for the region unless the U.S. Supreme Court reverses them.

That is why it's both important and confusing that the 8th Circuit and the U.S. Department of Labor disagree about how to interpret federal wage and hour law. Specifically, they disagree about when employers have to pay workers during meal breaks.

The Labor Department has been advising employers that the law requires that the employee to be "completely relieved from duty" during the meal in order for it to count as an unpaid break in their work hours. In other words, if a worker were on call during lunch, his or her lunch time would have to be paid by the employer.

In a case involving workers at a Nebraska chicken processing plant, however, the 8th Circuit said that the Labor Department rule was too strict. Instead, the 8th Circuit ruled, employers need to pay for meal breaks only if the time spent on them is "predominantly for the benefit of the employer."

In this particular case, the chicken processing plant employees brought a complaint that a frustratingly large part of their unpaid lunch breaks were spent taking off and putting on the protective clothing required in the plant. They argued that the time spent doing so was required by the company, so they should be paid for it. Using the Labor Department's rule, they argued that they were not "completely relieved from duty" during the protective clothing change, so it could not count toward unpaid meal times.

8th Circuit cited a precedent in a 1993 case and took the time to point out that it was likely the workers would want to take off their contaminated, blood-spattered clothing before eating anyway.

So, what should you do if you think your employer's rules serve to cut your unpaid meal time short? If you're an employer in Minnesota, what policy would you implement, considering this decision?

Source: Business Management Daily, "8th Circuit relaxes meal break pay requirements," The HR Specialist, Jan. 8, 2013

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