Unionized employers often enter into agreements with employees regarding compensation for particular hours or break periods. These agreements are reached through bargaining for the mutual benefit of the employer and union members. At times, such agreements can potentially be in tension with Department of Labor regulations regarding hours of work and break periods. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has resolved one such dispute, finding that an employer did not run afoul of Wisconsin wage-and-hour law by not compensating unionized employees for 20 minute meal periods pursuant to union contract. Aguilar v. Husco Int’l, Inc., 2015 WI 36 (Wis. 2015).

In Aguilar, the agreement called for 20 minute meal periods, resulting in shorter total shift lengths. This provision arguably conflicted with a Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) regulation requiring 20 minute meal periods to be paid absent waiver (consistent with the general FLSA principle that breaks shorter than 20 minutes generally are compensable). After the matter was adjudicated through the DWD (which declined to require back pay based on its view that the parties’ agreement constituted substantial compliance with the waiver process), the parties proceeded to litigation. Ultimately, the Wisconsin Supreme Court opined that “the DWD decision [not to require back pay] rests in large part on the investigator’s determination that the failure to obtain the waiver that would have satisfied the regulation was ‘a technical violation’ that did not warrant awarding back pay.”

Proper treatment of meal and rest periods remains essential to compliance with federal and applicable state wage-and-hour laws.