When is a Work Break Really a Break?

Massachusetts law requires employers to provide each employee with a thirty-minute meal break after six hours worked. The meal break may be unpaid. But what really constitutes a valid unpaid break? The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts is currently faced with such a question.

In Raposo v. Garelick Farms, LLC, Civil Action No. 11-11943-NMG, the plaintiff employees argue that during their unpaid meal breaks, their employer asked them not to travel more than five or ten miles away from the work site. Thus, they argue, they are entitled to be paid for those breaks.

The employees will need to convince the Court that the breaktime travel restrictions meant they were not “relieved of all work-related duties,” as required by Massachusetts regulation 455 C.M.R. § 201. The Raposo Court, in a memorandum, has offered a preview of its analysis for this question, as the case awaits trial. It will look to case law in other jurisdictions, such as Bernard v. IBP Inc. of Nebraska, 154 F.3d 259, 266 (5th Cir. 1998), which stated that relevant factors include the “limitations and restrictions placed upon the employees” and “the extent to which those restrictions benefit the employer.” The Court will also note that an employer who imposes even passive work requirements during meal breaks, such as security monitoring, violates the law. Reich v. S. New Eng. Telecomms. Corp., 121 F.3d 58, 65 (2nd Cir. 1997). Finally, the Court will question whether the travel restrictions actually changed the employees’ conduct during their breaks. Raposo Memorandum, p. 20.

As the employment law bar awaits a final ruling, one can reasonably assume that the Court will scrutinize the travel restrictions rigidly, perhaps requiring the employer to articulate a legitimate basis for imposing the restriction. And even then, Garelick might still need to pay the employees. It’s generally a bad idea to interfere with an employee’s meal break, even if you can make creative arguments that you aren’t really asking the employee to work. The employer-employee relationship contains an inherent power imbalance in favor of the employer, and employers who exploit that power generally find themselves in hot water.

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