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Can an employer keep you “on call” during lunch without paying?

On Behalf of | Dec 19, 2023 | Wage & Hour Laws |

Whether out of necessity due to staffing problems or out of a desire to keep their overhead as low as possible, a lot of workplaces operate with very minimal staffing. As a result, many employers ask their employees to stay “on call” while they’re on their lunch breaks – or just work right through while eating lunch at their desks.

Those “working lunches” might not be a problem if the employees were paid – but they’re usually not, and that’s a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

The issue is particularly problematic when it comes to automatic time deductions

Long gone are the days when paper time cards or sign-in/sign-out sheets were kept. Most companies now use some kind of automated time-keeping system that makes it easier to manage their payrolls.

Unfortunately, those systems use automatic deductions for an employee’s meal break, even when the employee doesn’t get to take them. Under the FLSA’s guidelines, non-exempt employees are entitled to compensation for all their work time. An employer doesn’t have the leeway to ask an employee to work through their lunch or stay glued to a pager or walkie-talkie without paying them for it.

A ruling by the U.S. Department of Labor recently underscored this point. The North Sunflower Medical Center’s use of automatic deductions for its employees was ruled illegal because the employees – all medical workers – were often required to work through their breaks. Another lawsuit has been filed against the Charleston Area Medical Center for similar wage and hour abuses, and it seeks to be declared a class action case on behalf of all affected employees.

Because this is a widespread issue, many employees who are routinely deprived of their fair wages don’t even realize that their employer is doing anything wrong – and employers often try to pressure employees into just accepting the status quo without complaint. If you believe that you’ve been deprived of your fair wages and your employer simply isn’t open to communication on the issue, it’s probably best to seek legal guidance.