Attorneys James T. Carey and P. Zachary Stewart

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Why it’s illegal for employers to automatically deduct time for your lunch

by | Dec 1, 2023 | Overtime And Wage Issues

A lot of industries are struggling with staffing issues. As a result, employees are constantly asked to work through their lunch breaks or carry pagers and other internal communication devices so that they’re perpetually on call, even during their meal times.

Surprisingly, it’s very common for employers to treat those “working lunches” as an employee’s personal time through the use of automatic deductions on their time sheets.

It’s not legal to deduct time for untaken meal breaks

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) outlines specific guidelines that employers must follow, and the FLSA says that non-exempt employees must be compensated for all the time they work, including when they’re on call or otherwise engaged in work-related activities during meal breaks. When meal breaks are given, that time is supposed to belong solely to the employee. If employees are asked to keep working while they’re supposedly on a break, they must be paid.

Automatic deductions for meal times are a convenient way for employers to manage their payrolls, especially in industries where it can be difficult to know exactly when an employee will be able to take their break – but automatic deductions are prone to abuse. Although automatic deductions can be used in all kinds of industries, including for IT professionals and customer service representatives, the problem seems to be particularly common for health care workers. 

For example, a lawsuit was recently filed on behalf of an employee of the Charleston Area Medical Center over the issue of automatic deductions for lunch times. Per the lawsuit, employees were routinely required to carry ASCOM phones so the hospital could track them down at all times, but meal times were deducted regardless of whether the employees were actually able to use their time freely. The plaintiff in the case now seeks to have the lawsuit designated as a class action so that relief can be obtained for all affected employees.

Similarly, the U.S. Department of Labor recently found the North Sunflower Medical Center in Mississippi guilty of illegally using automatic deductions for meal breaks when employees were often deprived of that time due to their work duties. In that case, $201,000 in back wages was recovered for the affected employees.

Ultimately, this is a reminder that employees everywhere need to be conscious of how easy it is for their employers to take advantage of their time and deprive them of their fair wages.  The FLSA requires that all non-exempt employees be paid at one and one-half times their regular rate for all hours worked over forty (40) hours in a week.  Having time automatically deducted from your hours worked, even though you were working (i.e., not completely relieved of your duties), may result in federal and state wage violations.  If you believe that you’ve been adversely impacted by automatic deductions from your pay for meal breaks you don’t get to take, it may be time to seek additional legal guidance to determine whether you have been a victim of “wage theft” by your employer – and therefore, entitled to compensation.