The FLSA requires that employers pay employees for all work time, as well as for any time that the employee is “engaged to wait.”  An employee is “engaged to wait” when the employee is idle, but is constrained with respect to engaging in personal activities. Thus, the employee’s time is deemed to be “for the benefit” of the employer.  Examples may include time spent waiting to respond to on-site incidents, monitoring a work location, or maintaining a presence in a particular area for public safety reasons,. When the employee is deemed free to pursue personal interests, the employee is “waiting to engage”, and need not be compensated. The United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa recently issued a decision analyzing and applying the  “engaged to wait” concept to lunch breaks in regard to security employees required to remain on-premises and on-call during their meal period.

Aiken v. Catholic Health Initiatives, No. 4:07-cv-018, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79782 (S.D. Iowa 2010), concerned private security guards who worked on the premises of defendant’s hospitals.   The security guards were  allotted 30 minute unpaid meal breaks pursuant to defendant’s written policy and practice. However for the duration of this break they were required to: (1) remain on-premises; (2) carry their hospital radios;, and (3) respond to any incidents or assignments in the hospital, should they arise. If a security guard was unable to take a full thirty-minute meal break during his/her shift due to an incident, the employee was instructed to notify their supervisor so that they could be paid for the entire thirty-minute period. The security guards sought compensation for these unpaid meal periods under the FLSA

The court held that the security guards were not “engaged to wait” during this time, but rather were free to pursue personal interests, such as making personal calls, playing card games, and surfing the Internet, and therefore their meal breaks were not compensable. Although the court acknowledged that the employer derived some benefit from the security guards’ “deterrence value” when they remained on premises—especially considering that each hospital had only one security guard per shift—it nonetheless found that the “predominant benefit” of the meal break fell to the employees themselves. 

Interestingly, the security guards argued that they were free to pursue personal activities during extensive “down time” during their compensable work hours, and therefore the activities pursued during “working time” and during the meal breaks were indistinguishable and, thus, equally compensable. The court flatly rejected this argument, finding such time was plainly not work, even if the employer chose to compensate for such personal time during the actual workday. 

In rejecting Plaintiffs’ claims and holding that neither 1) the potential to have to perform work nor 2) the actual performance of work on an occasional basis converted all meals breaks to compensable time, the court did note that if the security guards’ meal breaks were interrupted with a high level of frequency then the meal breaks could potentially be considered working time. However, the interruptions here were too infrequent to rise to that level, and regardless employees were paid whenever they notified their supervisors of a meal break interruption,. 

Employers who wish to require employees to remain on-call during meal periods must be cautious of state laws and ensure that any such on-call time does not regularly restrict employees from engaging in personal activities.