Earlier this month in Smiley v. E.I. Dupont De Nemours & Co., the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that employers cannot offset their obligation to pay overtime pay for hours worked in excess of 40 hours per week by voluntarily paying employees for a bona fide meal break.

In Dupont, employees filed  a collective and class action lawsuit against the Company seeking unpaid overtime for pre and post shift work donning and doffing their uniforms and protective gear and performing “shift relief” work in which employees would share information about the status of their work with incoming shift employees.  Plaintiffs spent about 30 to 60 minutes per day performing this work without compensation.

Plaintiffs worked 12-hour shifts at Defendants manufacturing plant and received three 30 minute meal breaks, which the Company voluntarily paid for.  The Company argued that because it paid for meal breaks even though it was not required to do so under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), it could use that compensation to offset the money owed for the unpaid time spent donning and doffing and performing “shift relief” work.

The lower court held in favor of Dupont and concluded that Plaintiffs were not owed additional compensation because the amount of paid non-work time (meal breaks) exceeded unpaid work time (pre and post shift work).  The Third Circuit disagreed.  It ruled that Dupont was required to pay employees for pre and post shift work, even though it voluntarily paid for meal breaks, because that meal break pay was already part of the employees’ standard compensation.

The Department of Labor, which filed an amicus brief in this case, stated that “there is no authority for the proposition that compensation already paid for the hours of work can be used as an offset and thereby be counted a second time as statutorily required compensation for other hours of work.”  The Third Circuit agreed and concluded that paid meal breaks could not offset uncompensated time worked.