The wave of wage and hour collective actions being filed and litigated in the district courts in the Fifth Circuit are making their way to the court of appeals. Last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued an opinion in an FLSA case over the compensability of meal periods provided by an employer where the employees had to travel more than several minutes to a location where the employees could take their meal period.  The court’s analysis should be important for any employer providing 30 minute uncompensated meal periods where the nonexempt employees have to travel more than a few minutes to the closest available break location.

In Naylor v. Securiguard, Inc., Securiguard is a government contractor providing security guards to guard three entrance gates at the Naval Air Station in Meridian, Mississippi. The guards work eight hour shifts and were provided two thirty minute breaks. Guards were not paid for those breaks. During those breaks, the guards are not permitted to eat at the gate or in parked company vehicles because the company was fearful the Navy would see the guards eating and think they were ignoring their duties. At some posts, guard could walk to a designated break location. At other posts, guards had to drive to a break location. If the guards had to travel to a designated break area, they were required to use a company vehicle. Securiguard prohibited employees from eating, drinking, smoking or talking on cell phones while driving company vehicles. Depending on the post where the guard was assigned and the closest designated break location, guards had a 1 to 12 minute roundtrip commute to an appropriate break location.

The guards sued claiming that because Securiguard did not provide a full thirty minute meal period, applicable Department of Labor regulations required that they be compensated for their breaks.  The district court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment reasoning that the employer did not place substantial duties or restrictions on the employees during their designated break time and therefore the breaks were primarily for the benefit of the employee and therefore noncompensable.  The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision with respect to the breaks taken on shifts where the employees only needed to commute a few minutes to the closest available break location holding that the mandatory commute time was de minimus.  The appellate court reversed the trial court’s judgment as to the breaks where the employee’s round trip to the closest available break location took up to twelve minutes.  As the court reasoned, “A requirement that deprives the employee of the opportunity to eat during 40% of a thirty-minute break thus strikes at the heart of what we and other courts have recognized as the most important consideration [of the predominant benefit test]: an employee’s ability to use the time ‘for his or her own purpose.'”  The case was sent back to trial court for a jury to determine whether the remaining meal breaks allowed enough time for the employees to use the break for their own purposes to qualify as noncompensable.

The Naylor case teaches the importance of not only focusing on the amount of meal period provided to the employees, but on other rules that apply to employees during break time that may reduce the amount of time the employees have to use for their own purposes during the meal period.

You can download the complete opinion here.