The laws addressing compensation for employee breaks are not that difficult to understand and properly apply. As one recent court decision reminded me, however, some employers unfortunately choose either not to learn those rules, or to simply ignore them until the United States Department of Labor becomes involved. Before discussing that decision, let’s review the basic legal requirements.

Laws addressing compensation for employee breaks are found in both Tennessee statutes and court decisions interpreting the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA is the primary source of “wage and hour” laws and generally addresses payment of the federally mandated minimum wage rate to employees who are not considered exempt. The FLSA actually does not require that employers provide meal breaks or breaks for personal needs (bathroom, refreshment, etc.). These shorter break periods for personal needs are sometimes referred to as “rehabilitative breaks.” Federal wage and hour regulations state, however, that when employers choose to allow employees to take short breaks for basic personal needs, the time spent on those breaks is compensable work time and must be included in determining overtime. Therefore, an employer should never require its employees to clock out for such rehabilitative breaks or deduct time from their weekly hours total for time spent on such breaks.

Tennessee law requires that all employers provide a meal break to employees for each day they work at least 6 consecutive hours. The meal break is to last a minimum of 30 minutes. It need not be a paid break, although if an employer places too many restrictions on what an employee can do and where she can go during her break, the FLSA may treat that as “on call” time and render it compensable. The statute creating this right also establishes a procedure by which the break can be waived under limited circumstances. I would advise employers in most circumstances, however, never to consider entertaining meal break waivers since an ineffective waiver would subject the employer to a claim for violation of the minimum wage and overtime requirements of the FLSA. In addition, the same state law that allows the waiver also provides for criminal liability and civil fines for coercing employees into waiving meal breaks.

Tennessee law also requires that employers provide nursing mothers “reasonable unpaid break time” for the purpose of expressing breast milk for her child. An employer may require that the time for this unpaid break time coincide with other rehabilitative break times already provided to her and other employees.

The court decision I reference above was rendered in December 2015 by a federal judge in Pennsylvania. The judge determined that a company employing over 6,000 call center employees violated the FLSA when it required its employees to clock out whenever they needed to go to the restroom or obtain a glass of water. The judge found that on many occasions these rehabilitative breaks were for periods of no more than 2-3 minutes. As a result of this finding, the employer was ordered to pay at least $1.75 million in unpaid back pay and “liquidated damages” (a form of punitive damages allowed under the FLSA). As this case illustrates, not being attentive to legal requirements and mistreating employees in regard to break times carry a potentially large financial risk.

If you would like to speak to John Lawhorn on this or any other subject, he may be reached at (865) 546-9321.