Beef plant employees can’t show entitlement to meal break pay

Claims by hourly employees at a beef processing plant alleging that their employer failed to provide bona fide 30-minute meal breaks were properly dismissed by a federal district court, ruled the Tenth Circuit, agreeing that the employees failed to meet their burden of proof. On appeal, the employees challenged the district court’s failure to compensate them for what they claimed was work performed during the break—donning and doffing protective equipment. In agreement with the district court, the appeals court concluded that the employees failed to show that “plug time” included in a collective bargaining agreement did not adequately compensate them for that time.

Employees at the beef processing plant who were paid under the terms of collective bargaining agreements filed suit alleging that they did not receive compensation required under the FLSA. Specifically, the dispute concerned when the work day begins, when it ends, and what, if any, compensation is due when the production lines halt for a 30-minute meal break. After a bench trial, the district court found that the employees failed to meet their burden of proof.

The question of when the work day begins and ends has been the source of many disputes. The Supreme Court has explained that “activities performed either before or after the regular work shift, on or off the production line, are compensable . . . if those activities are an integral and indispensable part of the principal activities for which covered workmen are employed and are not specifically excluded by Section 4(a)(1)” of the Portal-to-Portal Act (PPA). Congress has also left a few matters to collective bargaining. Another ground for ignoring some activities at the beginning and end of the work day is the de minimis doctrine.

Continuous-workday rule

Once the work day starts, all activity is ordinarily compensable until the work day ends. Under the continuous-workday rule, an activity that occurs between the first and last principal activities of the day is compensable even if that same activity would be excluded from compensable time under the PPA had it occurred before the first or after the last principal activity of the day. One exception to the continuous-workday rule is at issue in this litigation: An employer does not need to compensate employees for a bona fide meal break, which is ordinarily at least 30 minutes.

Sanitary gear and PPE

Employees at the plant wear sanitary gear and personal protective equipment in accordance with government regulations and employer rules. At the beginning of the work day employees put on such items and proceed to the production floor. At the end of the shift, they remove their equipment and sanitary clothing, and then sanitize their hands and equipment. Employees perform similar tasks at the beginning and end of their meal break. Under a timekeeping practice known as gang time, employees are paid from the time the first product arrives on the production line until the last product leaves the line. No one records activities employees perform off the production line at the beginning and end of the shift and during the meal break.

Work time did not exceed plug time

In 2000, the employer and union first incorporated measured times for tasks, called plug time, into their CBA as compensable time. Plug times also were incorporated into later CBAs. In 2010, additional plug time was added to account for pre- and post-shift walking between the locker room and the production floor. To the extent that the employees were entitled to any compensation for work performed during the meal break, the district court ruled that they had not shown that the work time exceeded the plug time they had been accorded in the CBAs and entered judgment in favor of the employer.

Walk time

The district court refused to order payment for plug times dating back to 2006 because the employees failed to produce credible supporting evidence of the walk times. The Tenth Circuit affirmed, but on the alternative ground that walk times from the locker rooms to the production floors at the beginning of the shift, and from the wash stands to the locker rooms at the end of the shift, were not compensable work before the plug times were added for that activity in the 2010 CBA.

The appeals court first reasoned that under Sec. 203(o), time at the beginning or end of the workday devoted to changing clothes is not compensable if so determined under a CBA. Second, the Supreme Court ruled in Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp. that time spent donning or doffing items that cannot be described as clothing is also noncompensable under Sec. 203(o) if performed at the same time as the noncompensable changing of clothes and the period “can, on the whole, be fairly characterized as time spent in changing clothes …” Third, the Tenth Circuit held that if time to perform an activity is noncompensable under Sec. 203(o), then the activity is not a “principal activity” that begins or ends the workday. Therefore, walk time between the production floor and the locker room, where noncompensable donning or doffing occurred, also was noncompensable under the PPA.

Further, the appeals court held that travel to the place where the employee performed a principal activity of the job (that was ordinarily noncompensable under the PPA) did not become compensable just because, during that travel, the employee must carry an item necessary for performance of the work if carrying the item adds negligible time or inconvenience to the travel. And, because the purpose of Sec. 203(o) is to leave compensability of certain activities to collective bargaining, it followed that if collective bargaining resulted in providing some compensation for unmeasured work time, that compensation did not convert any additional otherwise noncompensable activities into work time. That meant that walk time after donning protective gear that would otherwise be noncompensable did not become compensable just because the CBA provided plug time for some donning or doffing. As a result, the appeals court concluded that the CBA could exclude locker room activities from compensation under Sec. 203(o).

Bona fide meal break

The parties also disputed whether certain activities at the beginning and end of the 30-minute meal breaks at the plant were compensable work and whether the break met the requirement for a bona fide meal break. Specifically, the employees claimed that they had not been adequately compensated for time spent donning, doffing, cleaning, and walking during their 30-minute meal break. Under 29 C.F.R. Sec. 785.19(a), bona fide meal periods are not considered work time and are not compensable. For a break to qualify as a bona fide meal period, employees “must be completely relieved from duty for the purposes of eating regular meals,” and an “employee is not relieved if he is required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating.”

Most courts apply the predominant benefit test to determine whether a meal period is bona fide by asking whether the employee is “primarily engaged in work-related duties during meal periods.” If so, the employer must compensate the employee for the entire meal period. On appeal, the employees challenged the district court’s failure to compensate them for what they claimed was work performed during the break—donning, doffing, and walking. After finding the meal break to be bona fide, the district court examined whether the plug times for the meal break were adequate to compensate for work time during the break. It found that the employees had not met their burden of showing that the plug times for that period were inadequate and affirmed the district court judgment. (Castaneda v. JBS USA, LLC, 10thCir, 166 LC ¶36,429.)

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