Does Your Employer Make You Clock Out to Take Breaks? What You Need to
Know About Wage Theft
Federal law says that breaks of 20 minutes or less must be paid
It’s sad but true: Some unscrupulous employers exploit the fact that
workers don’t know their rights regarding fair compensation. Often,
that means that employees go home with a few less dollars in their pockets
while employers quietly collect the difference.
This is a practice known as wage theft. Wage theft often manifests when
employers nickel and dime workers over seemingly little things. Stripping
workers’ pay checks of a few dollars here and a few dollars there
can add up quickly.
The net result is often that employees are shorted hours, days, or in some
extreme cases, even weeks of compensable time each year. Despite laws
to protect workers’ rights to fair compensation, there are far too
many companies that are eager to find ways to game the system to their benefit.
Let’s take a look at a recent case in which a Pennsylvania company
found a creative way to use restroom breaks to steal wages from its mostly
minimum-wage workforce. Then we’ll discuss what you need to know
about your rights to take breaks on the job.
Bathroom Breaks Only Allowed Off the Clock
If you walked into a telemarketing office for Progressive Business Publications,
chances are that you wouldn’t see a lot of people with water bottles
or coffee mugs at their work stations.
Why was that? Because telemarketers were told they needed to log out of
the automated call program before leaving their desks for any reason unrelated
to work, including trips to the restroom.
Workers knew that at the end of the pay period their pay would be docked
to reflect all of the minutes they were logged out of the system. Since
many of the telemarketers worked for minimum wage, that meant that not
only were their checks short, but they were also not compensated in accordance
with the law.
Eventually, one of the telemarketers had enough and complained. The U.S.
Department of Labor (DOL) notified the company that failing to pay minimum
wage was a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
Believe it or not, getting a hand slap from the DOL wasn’t enough
to make the company change its practice. The DOL sued the company on behalf
of 6,000 telemarketers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ohio.
Company’s Creative Interpretation of the Law
In court, the company argued that breaks were essentially the same thing
as time off, so it stated that it was not obligated to compensate employees
for that time. It attempted to justify this argument by describing its
unique policy that supposedly allowed workers unlimited “off-duty”
time, in which people were completely relieved of their work tasks and
were free to do whatever they liked.
The company stated that employees benefitted from this “flexible”
work arrangement that allowed them to take as many breaks as they wanted
for as long as they wanted. Company officials even claimed that telemarketers
were not even required to return to work after this so-called off-duty time.
The court did not agree with the company’s argument, and the company
lost the case.
The court ruled that the company had violated the FLSA by failing to compensate
workers for short breaks of 20 minutes or less. It pointed out that short
breaks are necessary to allow employees to “… visit the bathroom,
stretch their legs, get a cup of coffee, or simply clear their head after
a difficult stretch of work.” It added that the intent of the law
is to protect employee health and general wellbeing by not discouraging
people from taking breaks when needed.
In other words, it’s illegal for companies to discourage people from
using the bathroom by docking their pay.
The company was ordered to pay back wages and damages to the 6,000 workers
represented in the lawsuit. The total is estimated to be around $1.75 million.
(The case discussed here is Unites States Department of Labor v. American Future Systems, d/b/a Progressive
What the Law Says About Breaks
It may be surprising to find out that federal law doesn’t guarantee
most hourly employees any specific breaks. However, that doesn’t
mean that workers are expected to remain at their work stations during
the entirety of their shifts.
As stated in the discussion above, the FLSA states that
breaks of 20 minutes or less must be compensated.
Breaks of more than 20 minutes are not required to be compensated under federal law. Often, that means employers can lawfully require employees
to clock out for meal breaks of 21 minutes or longer.
However, it’s important to note that states may have their own laws
that govern breaks as well. Because issues surrounding wage and hour theft
can be complicated, it’s a good idea to speak to an attorney if
you suspect you’ve been unlawfully denied your pay.
Call us to discuss your unique situation today.