A security services provider will pay more than $1.1 million following a DOL investigation that found it wrongfully deducted meal break time for hundreds of employees.
The DOL’s Wage and Hour Division investigated Universal Protection Service LP, which does business as Allied Universal Security Services. In a press release announcing the investigation’s result. the DOL said Allied is one of the world’s largest security and facility services providers.
According to the agency, Allied automatically deducted 45 minutes from the workdays of its security employees – even though it sometimes required them to stay at their posts during some or all of that time.
As explained further below, that’s a big no-no under federal law.
The investigation involved 778 employees. Allied will pay nearly $550,000 in back pay and an additional equal amount in liquidated damages. For good measure, the DOL assessed a $50,000 civil penalty.
Allied is no stranger to DOL investigations. Over the past five years, the agency has investigated it nearly 200 times. “The company violated FLSA requirements in most cases,” it says.
Meal break time and rest breaks: What’s the deal?
It may come as a surprise that the federal Fair Labor Standards Act does not require employers to provide meal or rest periods. But employers can still get in trouble in these areas. Here’s a general explanation of the applicable rules.
Under federal law, short breaks (usually lasting between 5 and 20 minutes) are compensable work hours.
In other words, they count as hours worked and must be paid. If an employee extends a break period without authorization, the unauthorized time need not be paid — as long as the employer clearly tells its employees:
- how long the authorized break lasts
- that any extension of the authorized period of time is against the rules, and
- that employees who extend the break without authorization will be punished.
Don’t bug me while I eat
Meal periods are different. They usually last at least 30 minutes, and they are not paid time.
To be deducted from work time, employees must be entirely relieved of work duties during this time. If they are not, the time must be paid.
Example: An employee is told that he gets a 30-minute meal period, but is also told to remain at his desk during that time in case he gets a work-related call. Because the employee is not completely relieved of work responsibilities during the 30-minute period, it is not a bona fide meal period. For that reason, the time must be paid.
Though employees must be relieved of work duties during meal periods for the meal period time to be deducted, a requirement that they remain on the premises does not make the meal period payable.
Instead, federal regulations specifically say employers may require employees to remain on workplace premises during meal periods.
Not the best idea
This case shows why automatically deducting time for meal periods — when you know or should know that the time is not being used for meals — is a terrible idea. Simply put, meal period time is time when employees are completely relieved of work duties, and it can be deducted only if it is actually taken.
An automatic deduction may dangerously assume that the time was used as a meal period even when an employee may have worked for all or part of the designated meal period time. Of course, it is a clear violation to deduct for time that you require an employee to work.
As the DOL has explained:
It is the duty of management to exercise control and see that work is not performed if the employer does not want it to be performed. An employer cannot sit back and accept the benefits of an employee’s work without considering the time spent to be hours worked.
Keep this guiding principle in mind: Employers must pay employees for time they “suffer or permit” them to work. This means that if employers know or should know an employee is working, they must pay them for the time worked.
If they don’t, a substantial penalty may be in store.