Q. Our employees are paid for a 1/2 hour lunch break, but they actually take 1 hour. Once a month, we have a staff meeting during lunch, and we provide a full lunch for all the staff. I have one employee who then takes an hour to leave the premise, claiming she is entitled to that hour additional time as it is her lunch hour. Is she entitled to take this time?
A. Since Labor Day first created the 8 hour work day, discussions between employees and employers about the breaks that occur between the start and end of the day continue. Managers and employees, each from their own vantage point, can find the answer to support their view. Many employees are happy to get a nice lunch, or any meal, provided in the work place. Other employees are not impressed, and feel that these kinds of meetings are a method for employers to encroach on employees “break” time.
I consulted David Conforto, Founder of Conforto Law Group, P.C.; a Boston-based boutique firm concentrating in all aspects of employment law and dedicated to the representation of employees. Conforto says “the short answer is that an employer can require an employee to remain on the premises during a meal break, but must provide compensation if it places such a restriction.” Massachusetts employees who work more than six hours a day must be provided with a minimum of thirty minutes unpaid time for a meal.
Employers who violate this provision are subject to fines ranging from $300 to $600 per violation. Attorney Conforto goes on to explain “The Attorney General’s Fair Labor and Business Practices Division issued an Advisory Opinion that elaborated on the meal break provision. The Advisory Opinion took the position that an employee is entitled to a paid meal break where, as in this particular circumstance, the employer restricts movement.”
Based on the significant amount of litigation related to this topic, employers should be mindful of their obligation under the Massachusetts Wage Act to pay employees for all time worked. Therefore, because the mandatory lunch meeting would likely be considered work for which an employee should be compensated, the entire meal period should be paid, even if it lasts more than 30 minutes.
While the employee is not entitled to take that additional hour, a manager might want to look into what that time might be needed for. Though the pay situation isn’t affected, there may be alternative methods to support the employee if there is a compelling need. I have known employees who check on an elderly relative, or let the dogs out during that break. There will be a huge range of reasons, and if a manager and employee are willing to have a candid conversation, arrangements which both parties can agree to, without costing the organization more money, can often be created.