FMLA-Covered 15-Minute Rest Breaks Are Not Compensable

Last July, we posted on the U.S. Department of Labor’s announcement that it was reviving its practice of publishing opinion letters as guidance on wage and hour issues, which the Obama Administration halted in 2010. After leaving us all on pins and needles for months, the DOL has finally issued three new opinion letters. The letters address the following topics (drum roll, please…): 15-minute rest breaks for serious health conditions; employee travel time; and lump-sum payments to employees. Below is a summary of the 15-minute break letter; we will post separately on the other two topics.

The Scenario

Reunited and It Feels So Good—The DOL’s Opinion Letters Are Back (Part 1 of 3)Letter FLSA2018-19 explains that due to a serious health condition, a non-exempt employee can take eight 15-minute rest breaks per workday as intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. The employee works an eight-hour shift but, due to the breaks, is only performing six hours of work. The employer wants to know whether these breaks must be compensated under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The Guidance

The letter recognizes that a rest break up to 20 minutes in length is ordinarily compensable under the FLSA because it primarily benefits the employer. In certain circumstances, however, courts have held that frequent accommodation breaks primarily benefit the employee and do not require compensation. With that in mind, the DOL opines that the employee is not due compensation for his or her rest breaks.

Lastly, the letter emphasizes that employees who take FMLA-protected breaks must also receive as many compensable rest breaks as their coworkers. So, if the employee’s coworkers receive two paid 15-minute breaks during an eight-hour shift, the employee is entitled to 10 breaks total, the first two paid and the remainder unpaid.

Takeaways

This opinion letter is an important reminder of the intersections between the various employment statutes. Depending on the employee’s serious health condition, issues under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the applicable state workers’ compensation statute could also come into play. Call your lawyer if you think you need help navigating your obligations under one statute in a way that won’t run afoul of another. And don’t forget that we can now ask DOL for an opinion letter.

Read part 2 and part 3.

Employee Handbook Leads to Dismissal of FMLA Claims against Tennessee EmployerMost, if not all, employers provide their employees with handbooks that explain the policies and procedures that govern the employment relationship. Because this practice is standard, many employers likely forget how critical it is to have clear, well-known policies that are consistently followed. The recent decision in Everson v. SCI Tennessee Funeral Services, LLC reminds employers of the significance of employee handbooks and how they can prevent extensive litigation.

Background

Ommer Everson worked as a funeral director for SCI Tennessee Funeral Services (SCI). Although Everson was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease during his employment, it did not affect his work until he needed some time off for outpatient ear procedures. Before his procedure in 2010, Everson requested a week to 10 days off, which his supervisor granted. In 2014, Everson requested an afternoon off for another procedure and his supervisor again granted the request. On January 9, 2015, he requested a week off for a third procedure and his supervisor responded that it was fine—“whatever time you need.”

However, Everson never took that week off because he was terminated two days later for violating SCI’s refrigeration policy. Specifically, SCI determined that Everson left an unembalmed body overnight without refrigeration.

Everson sued SCI alleging violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Regarding the FMLA, Everson specifically alleged that SCI had retaliated against him for requesting FMLA leave and interfered with the exercise of his rights.

Middle District of Tennessee Grants Summary Judgment to SCI on FMLA Claims

SCI moved for summary judgment, arguing that it did not interfere with Everson’s FMLA rights because Everson failed to follow SCI’s notice requirements in requesting leave. SCI’s employee handbook outlined the procedure—employees needing leave were to contact the SCI Leave and Disability Center. In response, Everson asserted that the FMLA did not require him to invoke the FMLA by name. Providing notice to his supervisor for a procedure related to Meniere’s disease was sufficient to notify SCI that Everson was invoking FMLA protection.

Siding with SCI, the Middle District of Tennessee granted summary judgment, holding that the 2009 amendment to 29 C.F.R. § 825.302(d) “explicitly permit[ted] employers to condition FMLA-protected leave upon an employee’s compliance with the employer’s usual notice and procedural requirements, absent unusual circumstances.” The court explained that despite the fact that Everson had received, read, and signed SCI’s employee handbook, he never requested FMLA leave or asked anyone at SCI for FMLA leave. He also did not identify any unusual circumstances that would have prevented him from complying with SCI’s notice requirement. Because Everson failed to comply with SCI’s policy for requesting FMLA leave, the court ruled that he could not establish a prima facie case for FMLA interference. Additionally, the court ruled that Everson’s claim of FMLA retaliation failed because his anticipated leave was not a protected activity under the FMLA. Since SCI did not have proper notice of Everson’s intent to take FMLA leave, Everson never actually engaged in an activity protected by the FMLA.

The court went on to deny summary judgment to SCI regarding Everson’s ADA claim, but that is a much longer story for a different post.

Takeaways

Never forget the power of the employee handbook and other well-crafted policies. In this case, the employer set out a clear path to request FMLA leave, and the court determined that the plaintiff did not use it. To get the most from those policies, you need to be sure that you can prove that your employees know about them. Here are some ideas:

  • Make sure that every employee receives a copy of your employee handbook and acknowledges in writing that they have both read the handbook and addressed any questions or concerns that they may have.
  • For policies regarding employment laws that may be more complex (g., requesting FMLA leave, requesting reasonable accommodations, requesting or reporting overtime, etc.), consider having employees read, acknowledge, and sign a separate document in addition to the handbook acknowledgement to ensure that they understand their responsibilities, as well as your responsibilities as their employer.
  • Send periodic messages or post reminders about more complicated policies—such as requesting FMLA leave or reporting harassment. This will give you another way to prove that employees understand how the policies work.

The Case of the Breastfeeding Narc: 11th Circuit Confirms Lactating Employee is Covered Under Pregnancy Discrimination ActDoes an employee’s protection under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) stop when the employee ceases to be pregnant?  The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals was confronted with this question in Stephanie Hicks v. City of Tuscaloosa, in which Ms. Hicks, a police officer who returned from maternity leave and unsuccessfully sought some accommodation related to breastfeeding. The police department said the requested accommodation was not required and she ultimately left her job, alleging she had been constructively discharged. The 11th Circuit stated that a “plain reading” of the PDA showed that breastfeeding is covered and affirmed the jury verdict in Hicks’ favor.

Factual Background

Stephanie Hicks was an investigator on the narcotics task force of the Tuscaloosa Police Department. After she became pregnant, her supervisor allowed her to work on pharmaceutical fraud cases so she could be off on nights and weekends. Before she left for her FMLA pregnancy leave, Hicks received exceptional performance reviews. However, on her first day back at work after her leave, she was written up. She submitted that some of her superior officers negatively commented on the length of her FMLA leave. The City claimed that Hicks was not willing to meet the demands of a narcotics officer and subsequently transferred her out of that unit and into a patrol unit. The City wrote a letter stating the reasons for her demotion and included an incident where officers came to Hicks’s home to get her police car and she did not come out because she was breastfeeding.

One of the big differences between a narcotics officer and a patrol officer is that a patrol officer must wear a ballistic protective vest all day. Hicks’s doctor wrote a letter to the police chief asking that she be considered for alternative duties because the restrictive ballistic vest could cause breast infections that could lead to problems with breastfeeding. Hicks asked for a desk job so that she would not be required to wear a vest. The Police Department instead only offered her two options:  1) don’t wear a vest; or 2) wear a “specially fitted” vest that left gaping holes. For safety reasons, Hicks did not choose either option and resigned. She sued the City and a jury found in her favor on constructive discharge, pregnancy discrimination, and FMLA interference, awarding her $374,000. The City appealed, arguing that it reassigned Hicks because of her poor performance rather than discrimination.

The Eleventh Circuit’s Take

The 11th Circuit found that Hicks was both discriminated against on the basis of her pregnancy and retaliated against for taking FMLA leave.  Under the PDA, an employer may not discriminate against an employee on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or “related medical conditions.” The 11th Circuit held that lactation is a related medical condition to pregnancy and therefore, a termination based on a woman’s need to breastfeed violates the PDA. The court went on to make the somewhat obvious statement: “Breastfeeding is a gender-specific condition because it clearly imposes upon women a burden that male employees need not—indeed, could not—suffer.”

However, the court noted, there is an abundance of case law stating that Title VII and the PDA do not mandate that employers  have to provide “special” accommodations to breastfeeding workers. The opinion recognizes that Hicks had a unique case. While the City may not have been required to provide Hicks with special accommodation for breastfeeding, the City’s action in refusing an accommodation offered to other employees compelled her to resign and supported the jury’s verdict. The court went on to cite Young v. United Parcel Service a case that recognized a Title VII claim for a pregnant woman where her employer failed to accommodate her in a lifting restriction, but accommodated other similar non-pregnant employees on worker’s comp. Given these facts, the court upheld the jury verdict.

What Did We Learn?

This decision clearly shows that a breastfeeding employee is still protected under the PDA and employers should take note. While it is not an absolute protection from any supported non-discriminatory adverse employment action, employers should be careful about loose comments about the employee and certainly should engage in an interactive process if approached about a reasonable accommodation. While the 11th Circuit made some blanket statements that breastfeeding employees don’t have to be treated as special, they surely were not ignoring an employer’s obligation under the FLSA that mandates employers to provide reasonable break time for employees to express breast milk for a nursing child for up to one year after the child’s birth. The employer must also provide the lactating employee a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public.