Q&A: Lunch breaks and FLSA

Q: If we establish a rule that employees may only eat lunch at their desk if they don’t do any work, do we have to pay them during their lunch period?

A: Maybe. A bona fide meal break is not considered work time. Therefore, it is not compensable. To be a bona fide meal break, the employee must be completely relieved of duty for the purpose of eating regular meals. Thirty consecutive minutes is usually considered long enough to qualify as a bona fide meal period.
It is a challenge to keep employees from being interrupted with work when they are at their desks. Answering the phone, reading district e-mail, or responding to work-related questions from parents or coworkers constitutes work and interrupts the meal break. When that happens, the time becomes compensable.
Although the district may establish a rule about not working during lunch, the district is still responsible for paying employees whenever they perform work and ensuring that overtime is appropriately compensated. Rules may be enforced through disciplinary action but the employee must still be paid. Saldivar v. Austin ISD is a perfect example (Saldivar v. Austin Indep. Sch. Dist., Cause No. A-14-CA-00117-SS, 2015 WL 5655699 (W.D. Tex. Sept. 24, 2015). In that case, the employee sued the district for unpaid overtime. She presented a calendar showing days she claimed to have worked through lunch creating the overtime situation. AISD had a rule that allowed employees to eat lunch at their desks if they were not doing work.

Although the supervisor was aware that office employees were eating at their desk, she didn’t remind them of the rule. The court found that the district owed the employee overtime because the supervisor should have known Saldivar was working during lunch.