Unpaid Meal Breaks Just Got Easier to Defend in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania

Author: Michael Cardman, XpertHR Legal Editor

December 10, 2015

An employer in Delaware, New Jersey or Pennsylvania need not pay an employee for meal breaks as long at the employee receives most of the benefit of the break, a federal appellate court has ruled.

A US Department of Labor (DOL) regulation states that "an employee must be completely relieved from duty" for a meal break to be unpaid. So, for example, an office employee who is required to eat at his desk or a factory worker who is required to be at her machine is working while eating, according to the DOL.

In Babcock v. Butler Cnty., 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 20393 (3d Cir. 2015), the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals joined the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 10th Circuits by rejecting a literal reading of this regulation in favor of a "predominant benefit" standard that "assesse[s] the totality of the circumstances to determine, on a case-by-case basis, to whom the benefit of the meal period inures."

(Unlike so-called notice-and-comment regulations, to which courts usually must defer, the regulation at issue in the Babcock case was a "statement of general policy or interpretation" that does not have the force of law.)

Based on this predominant benefit standard, the 3rd Circuit concluded that the plaintiffs in the case - corrections officers at a prison in Butler, Pennsylvania - were not entitled to be paid for their meal breaks even though:

  • They may not leave the prison without permission from the warden or deputy warden;
  • They must remain in uniform;
  • They must remain in close proximity to emergency response equipment; and
  • They must remain on call to respond to emergencies.

"On balance, these restrictions did not predominantly benefit the employer," the 3rd Circuit concluded. "In comparison to the cadre of case law addressing mealtime compensability in the law enforcement context, the allegations in Plaintiffs' complaint do not suffice. For example, the corrections officers here could request authorization to leave the prison for their meal period and could eat lunch away from their desks."