Although the turkey (and leftover turkey sandwiches) are all gone, employers within the Third Circuit have reason to extend the Thanksgiving celebration given a recent decision affirming the dismissal of a collective action complaint alleging unpaid meal breaks. Just two days before Thanksgiving, in Babcock et al. v. Butler County, the majority of a divided panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals announced its decision to join many of its sister Circuit Courts of Appeals in adopting the “predominant benefit” test in deciding the compensability of a meal break.
Plaintiffs in Babcock are corrections officers whose terms and conditions of employment are governed by a collective bargaining agreement. Under the terms of the CBA, employees receive an hour-long meal period, of which 45-minutes are paid and 15 minutes are unpaid.
Plaintiffs filed suit under the FLSA, alleging that they are entitled to overtime compensation for the 15 unpaid minutes of their meal break because, during this time, they are prohibited from leaving the prison without permission, must remain in uniform and near emergency response equipment, and must respond immediately to emergencies. The employees argued that, because of these meal-break restrictions, they “cannot run personal errands, sleep, breathe fresh air, or smoke cigarettes,” and, thus, should be paid for the full one-hour break.
The County moved to dismiss Plaintiffs’ claims, arguing that the restrictions on Plaintiffs’ meal periods did not change the fact that the officers still received the “predominant benefit” of the break time. The District Court agreed and dismissed the lawsuit.
On appeal, the Third Circuit announced its decision to follow the majority of Circuits in adopting the “predominant benefit” test, rather than the alternative “completely relieved from duty” test. In so holding the Third Circuit acknowledged that, like the majority of other Circuits, it was departing from the Department of Labor’s so-called “regulation” on the issue: “Courts have generally eschewed a literal reading of a Department of Labor regulation that provides that during a ‘bona fide meal period’ ‘[t]he employee must be completely relieved from duty ….’” The Third Circuit explained in a footnote that it is entitled to depart from the DOL’s “regulation” because it “do[es] not have the force of law” and serves as mere guidance to courts and litigants.
Applying the predominant benefit test, the Third Circuit agreed with the District Court’s finding that, even accepting all of Plaintiffs’ allegations as true, the meal-time restrictions did not predominantly benefit the employer. Based on the parties’ characterization of the 15-minute unpaid meal break and the fact that the CBA promised pay for the time if an employee’s break were interrupted, the parties’ agreed-upon 15 minutes of uninterrupted break time remained predominantly for the benefit of the employees and need not be compensated.
As proponents of the “predominant benefit” test have long argued, it defies logic to think the opposite—that a mere minute or two for the employer’s benefit or a few restrictions on an employee’s break time should turn an entire meal break into paid time. The Third Circuit’s decision to employ the “predominate benefit” test broadens for employers the geographic scope in which logic and the practicalities of the modern workplace prevail. Such a step in the right direction is a development for which all employers can be thankful.