American Future Systems, doing business as Progressive Business Publications, was recently ordered to pay $1.75 million dollars to a class of call center workers for unpaid bathroom breaks and other short rest breaks. This amount includes wages owed for time spent on these short breaks plus liquidated (double) damages in an equal amount.
Jim Cain, District Director for the Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, commented on the ruling and stated: “The judge’s decision reaffirms how clear the Fair Labor Standards Act is about short breaks being compensable, and goes a long way in making these employees whole by awarding liquidated damages.”
Paying for Bathroom Breaks
American Future Systems employs more than 6,000 employees who work in 14 call centers throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Ohio. Many of the company’s employees work as telemarketers who offer free subscriptions to the company’s 20 newsletters. Subscribers are billed after the first few issues unless they cancel their subscriptions.
Cain went on to say that “[f]or far too long, American Future Systems penalized its employees for taking breaks to meet the most basic needs during the work day – stretching their legs, getting a glass of water or just using the restroom.”
What is Compensable?
Federal law does not require lunch or coffee breaks. However, when employers do offer short breaks (usually lasting about 5 to 20 minutes), federal law considers the breaks as compensable work hours that would be included in the sum of hours worked during the work week and considered in determining if overtime was worked. Unauthorized extensions of authorized work breaks need not be counted as hours worked when the employer has expressly and unambiguously communicated to the employee that the authorized break may only last for a specific length of time, that any extension of the break is contrary to the employer’s rules, and that any extension of the break will be punished.
Bona fide meal periods (typically lasting at least 30 minutes), serve a different purpose than coffee or snack breaks and, thus, are not work time and are not compensable.
The American Future Systems decision is yet another example of how an employer can run afoul of state and federal wage and hour laws. In particular, with call centers, the employer often runs afoul of the law by not counting time spent booting up and shutting down computers at the start and end of each day. This, like meal breaks, is also compensable time for which an employee must be paid. Furthermore, the time spent performing these tasks must be included in their overtime hour calculations.
Image link: https://pixabay.com/en/call-center-headset-woman-service-2944063/