In Hisle, et al. v. Correctcare – Integrated Health, Inc., Ky. App. (June 12, 2015), the Kentucky Court of Appeals addressed the issue of what test applies when employees claim to have missed meal breaks. Plaintiffs, who were nurses and medication aids employed at a prison, sued under the Kentucky wage and hour laws alleging that they were denied rest and meal breaks and were therefore entitled to additional compensation. Plaintiffs based their claim on the fact that they had to carry or monitor a handheld two-way radio while working inside the prison facilities, including during their 30-minute lunch breaks, which were automatically deducted from their time.
The trial court held that merely monitoring the radio during meal breaks did not amount to a denial of a meal break if employees could comfortably and adequately spend their mealtime and their time was not devoted primarily to official responsibilities. At trial, the plaintiffs claimed that they were entitled to damages for each and every shift worked because they had to carry a radio. The plaintiffs were unable to demonstrate specific occasions during which they had not received a meal break or been compensated for a missed meal break and could only estimate a percentage of missed meal breaks. And importantly, the defendant had a process in place to allow employees to seek compensation for missed meal breaks. Here, all but one of the plaintiffs had been reimbursed for certain missed lunches they had reported and could not explain their failure to report other missed meal breaks. The jury found that three of the six plaintiffs had been provided necessary meal breaks and that the other three plaintiffs had failed to follow the employer’s procedure for reporting uncompensated breaks.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals agreed that merely carrying a radio did not establish a claim for compensable time and affirmed the trial court’s application of the predominant benefit test. Under this test, which is applied by the Sixth Circuit (which includes Kentucky), breaks are compensable only if the employee spends his or her break time predominantly performing duties for the employer’s benefit. In applying the predominant benefit test, the court rejected the “completely relieved from duty test” advocated by Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs relied upon the wage and hour regulations, 803 KAR 1:065, which states that an “employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purpose of eating regular meals.” In contrast, the applicable statute, KRS 337.355, states only that a reasonable period must be provided for lunch and does not require that an employee be completely relieved from duty. Accordingly, in line with federal case law, the Kentucky Court of Appeals found the predominant benefit test to be applicable.
In light of this decision, employers should review their policies and make certain that they have an established procedure that has been publicized to employees regarding how to be compensated for missed meal breaks, particularly if meal periods are automatically deducted from employees’ time. This simple step could avoid a costly wage and hour verdict.