Automatic Lunch Deductions Violate the Law Where Healthcare Workers Are Forced to Perform Work During Lunch Periods

Nathan Eisenberg

Over the last several years, there has been a growing recognition of the problems raised by systematic under-compensation of non-exempt, hourly employees in the health care industry. Numerous “hospital compensation cases” have been filed, typically involving health care workers with patient care duties, alleging that the employer’s automatic deduction of time for unpaid meal periods violates the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Previant Law Firm has successfully pursued such claims on behalf of hundreds of healthcare workers.

For automatic deductions to be lawful, the breaks must be structured so employees are given an actual break from work. Lunch periods can be unpaid where no work is performed during the break and where the employee is totally free from work duties. In addition, if you are working in Wisconsin, there are also requirements that the unpaid break be at least 30 minutes long and that you be able to leave the employer’s premises. Under either state or federal law, there should be a mechanism for being paid if your break is interrupted and you return to work. If done properly, automatic lunch deductions are lawful.

For people in the health care industry, particularly nurses with direct patient care duties, having uninterrupted lunches is often unrealistic. For example, nurses in hospitals are often expected to carry pagers or phones with them so they can be recalled during lunch. Their lunch periods are often interrupted by patient requests. Often the pagers won’t work away the hospital, so they need to stay close to their stations. Additionally nurses are often expected respond to emergency codes in the hospital. These requirements may make it rare for a break to be uninterrupted and off-duty.

Where a nurse or other hourly employee performs during the periods that are subject to the automatic lunch deductions, they have a claim for back wages for those lunchtime breaks. Lunch breaks where work is performed or where they are interrupted should be paid. In Wisconsin, lunch periods of less than 30 minutes or where you are forced to stay on campus need to be paid.

Employees bringing wage claims can claim wages going back two years, or three years if the violation is willful. In addition to straight time wages, you may also be entitled to overtime wages (for hours over forty in a week) and attorneys fees and liquidated damages.