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It Pays to Eat – The Massachusetts Meal Break Law

Posted on

by Adam. J. Shafran

In a recent class action law suit brought by employees of a security company, the Massachusetts Superior Court described the legal standard to be applied when determining whether a thirty-minute meal break constitutes compensable working time. In this case brought under the Massachusetts Wage Act, the employer Longwood Security Services Inc. (“Longwood”) maintained a company policy pursuant to which its employees/security officers were permitted to take an unpaid thirty-minute meal break, but were required to stay in uniform, not permitted to leave their assigned location without permission, and remained responsible for keeping their radio on and responding to calls during their meal break.

The parties presented opposing arguments to the Court on the legal standard to be applied when determining whether the aforementioned meal break time is compensable. The employees argued the standard should follow the “relieved from duties” test, derived from the Code of Massachusetts Regulations (“CMRs”). Specifically, 454 CMR § 27.02 defines “working time” as:

All time during which an employee is required to be on the employer’s premises or to be on duty, or to be at the prescribed work site or at any other location, and any time worked before or after the end of the normal shift to complete the work. Working time does not include meal times during which an employee is relieved of all work-related duties.

The employer argued the legal standard to determine whether meal break time is compensable should be based on the “predominance” test under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). Under the FLSA’s predominance test, time is compensable only if the activities the employee is engaged in during the time in question are predominantly for the benefit of the employer. Using the test, Longwood argued the Court should find the meal break time in question not compensable because the time was used by the employees predominantly for their own benefit – even though there may have been some restrictions on the employees’ time.

The Superior Court ultimately ruled for the employees, holding that the plain unambiguous language of the Massachusetts statutes and regulations govern the legal standard for liability and there was no reason to look to interpretations of federal law under the FLSA.

Although the Superior Court’s decision was a win for the employees, the case is now scheduled to proceed to trial to determine whether the security officers were relieved of all duties during the thirty-minute meal break. Regardless of the ultimate outcome of this case, it should serve as an important reminder to all employers. If employees are not fully relieved of their duties during an unpaid thirty-minute meal break, an employer may be liable for treble the unpaid amount under Massachusetts’ strict liability wage laws.