When is a Lunch Break Not a Lunch Break? The Sixth Circuit and Ruffin v. MotorCity Casino
Hopefully you aren’t reading this on your lunch break, hoping that you can then count the time spent as compensable work time, especially if you’re in the Sixth Circuit. In the case of Ruffin v. MotorCity Casino, the Sixth Circuit held that casino security guards tasked with monitoring their radios over their lunch break were not engaged in compensable work for purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act. This may be less than good news for employees, but it might provide some leeway in the future as to what employers may permissibly ask employees for on their lunch breaks.
In Ruffin, the security guards at the MotorCity Casino worked five eight-hour shifts a week. Under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement, the guards received a paid, thirty-minute lunch break. They were free to socialize, make calls, eat, surf the internet and play games, among other things. They were not, however, free to leave the premises, they had to monitor their two-way radios at all times during the break, and they had to respond to any emergencies that might arise in that time. They sued under the Fair Labor Standards Act, but the Sixth Circuit agreed with the district court that the applicable standard was whether the time spent was primarily for the employer’s benefit. The Sixth Circuit came to the conclusion that no reasonable jury could disagree that the employer was not the primary beneficiary of this time and affirmed the grant of summary judgment for the casino.
Employers shouldn’t, however, take this case (yet) as carte blanche to saddle employees with extra duties during periods considered to be meal breaks, however. The Department of Labor interprets the FLSA and applicable case law to suggest that “[a]n employee who is required to remain on call on the employer’s premises or so close thereto that he cannot use the time effectively for his own purposes is working while ‘‘on call’’.” (29 CFR §785.17) The DOL also states that bona fide meal periods aren’t work time, and that “[t]he employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purposes of eating regular meals. …The employee is not relieved if he is required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating.” (29 CFR §785.19) This case may ultimately affect these interpretations, but employers would be wise to follow existing interpretations until the ramifications of Ruffin become clear.