• National Retailers Hit With Meal Break Litigation
  • August 29, 2013
  • Law Firm: Troutman Sanders LLP - Atlanta Office
  • Retail and service establishments live by the mantra: the customer is always right. A belief that holds a close second: the customer is probably in a hurry, too. So, when the customer is ready to check out at a cash register or needs help finding a dressing room or has questions about this week’s sales or promotional items, most employees will quickly try to meet those customers’ needs. And, of course, that’s not a legal violation. But what if the employee was on his or her meal break at the time?

    The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (the "FLSA") does not require employees to receive meal breaks. It does, however, require that all covered, non-exempt employees be paid for all hours worked. The U.S. Department of Labor, which enforces the FLSA, takes the position that bona fide meal periods (typically lasting at least 30 minutes) are generally not compensable, provided the employee is "completely relieved from duty" for the purpose of eating regular meals. Conversely, the employee is not relieved from duty if he or she is required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating. Some states also impose their own requirements and restrictions on meal breaks (including, California, Illinois, and New York), which the DOL summarizes here: http://www.dol.gov/whd/state/meal.htm.

    A couple of recent lawsuits suggest that the scenario described above, in which employees (either through their own volition or by being asked to handle discrete tasks) worked at least during if not through their meal breaks, is not entirely uncommon. Just ask clothing giant Brooks Brothers. In June 2013, Brooks Brothers Group, Inc. was hit with a putative class action alleging that the company, among other things, deprived employees of proper meal breaks in violation of state law. The named plaintiff in that case, a non-exempt sales associate and manager, alleged that Brooks Brothers knew or should have known that the plaintiff and the other class members should have been entitled to additional pay required under state law when they did not receive a timely uninterrupted meal period. They also allege that Brooks Brothers did not staff sufficient employees to meet customer service demands and did not properly coordinate employee schedules to permit compliant meal periods.

    Another company hit with a lawsuit in June 2013 alleging that it failed to provide employees with proper meal breaks: Pottery Barn. In that case, the named plaintiff alleged that he and his putative class members were denied meal breaks required by state law and/or required to work during those breaks without compensation. These cases serve as a reminder that low staffing levels or other business conditions that require non-exempt employees to forfeit all or part of a required meal break, or the failure to compensate employees properly for work performed during such breaks, could potentially spawn litigation.