[author: Michael Cardman, XpertHR Legal Editor]
By establishing a reasonable process for employees to report missed meal breaks or other forms of uncompensated working time, employers can avoid damages under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), as a new federal appeals court ruling illustrates.
In White v. Baptist Mem. Health Care Corp., +2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 22752 (6th Cir. 2012), this protection applied even when the employee reported to her supervisors and to her HR department that she missed meal breaks but failed to report not receiving payment for those missed breaks.
"Accordingly, there is no way [the employer] should have known she was not being compensated for missing her meal breaks," the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stated. "Therefore, her claims fail."
In the White case, the employer provided employees a handbook stating that employees who work shifts of six or more hours would receive an unpaid meal break that would be automatically deducted from their pay checks. The handbook also stated that if an employee's meal break was missed or interrupted because of a work-related reason, the employee would be compensated for the time he or she worked during the meal break. Employees were instructed to record all time spent performing work during meal breaks in an exception log.
The plaintiff in the case, a nurse named Margaret White, signed a document stating that she understood the policy. Most times when she missed a meal break and reported it, she was paid. There was at least one occasion when she reported a missed meal break but was not paid for it; however, she never told her supervisors or the HR department that she was not compensated for missing her meal breaks.
Eventually, White stopped reporting her missed meal breaks. She sued her employer, claiming it violated the FLSA by failing to pay her for the missed meal breaks. A district court dismissed the case, and she appealed to the 6th Circuit.
The appeals court upheld the district court's ruling because the employer had established its reporting system. "When White utilized the system she was compensated and when she failed to use the system she was not compensated," it held. "Without evidence that [the employer] prevented White from utilizing the system to report either entirely or partially missed meal breaks, White cannot recover damages … under the FLSA."
The court also decertified the case as a collective action, marking the latest ruling in what appears to be a trend of courts interpreting the similarly situated standard more strictly.