Posts Tagged ‘unpaid work time’

Employee’s Failure to Report Overtime Thwarts Her FLSA Claim

In a split decision, the Sixth Circuit recently held that a nurse’s failure to follow her employer’s procedures for reporting time spent working during an unpaid meal break was fatal to her Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) claim.  In White v. Baptist Mem’l Health Care Corp., the majority of the court found that the trial court’s dismissal of the employee’s case before trial was proper because her employer could not have known or had reason to know that the employee was not receiving pay for missed meal breaks as the employee was not using the employer’s exception log to record the extra time that she worked.  Additionally, the employee offered no evidence that the employer discouraged employees from reporting meal break work or that it was otherwise notified that employees were not reporting such work.

By way of background, before being hired, the nurse signed a document stating that she understood that unpaid meal breaks would be deducted from her paycheck, but that any time spent working during meal breaks had to be noted in an exception log in order for the nurse to be paid for that time.  The nurse acknowledged that in instances when she and her entire nursing unit reported working during a meal break, the hospital compensated her for that time.  However, the nurse also alleged that there were instances in which the hospital did not pay her when she individually worked through a meal break and reported it on the log.  Although, the nurse notified supervisors about missed meal breaks, she never complained to supervisors that she was being unpaid when she worked through her meal breaks–a distinction the Sixth Circuit found quite important.  Eventually the employee stopped using the exception log because she claimed that reporting missed meal breaks just seemed like an “uphill battle.”

Given these facts and circumstances, the Sixth Circuit, relying on case law from the Eighth, Fifth, and Ninth circuits, said that an employer that establishes a “reasonable process” allowing employees to report unpaid work time will not be liable for nonpayment where an employee does not follow that process because when an employee fails to follow the reasonable time reporting procedure, she prevents the employer from knowing its obligations to compensate the employee and thwarts the employer’s ability to comply with the FLSA.  Thus, the court found that there was no way for the hospital to have known that the employee was not being compensated for missing her meal breaks.  As such, the court held that the employee’s claim failed.

In so holding, the Sixth Circuit distinguished this case from cases where employers prevented employees from reporting overtime or where the employers were otherwise notified of the employee’s unreported work.  In this case, however, the employee presented no evidence that the employer discouraged her or other employees from reporting on exception logs the time they spent working during meal breaks, or that the hospital was otherwise notified of the unreported work.

Interestingly, the dissenting opinion notes that an employer violates the FLSA if it had actual or constructive knowledge that an employee worked without pay regardless of whether the employee has properly reported the time.  The judge writing the dissenting opinion felt that the employee had raised a triable issue regarding whether the employer had actual knowledge because, among other things, the supervisors knew the employee was working through lunch and complaining about it, and should have responded to the employee’s complaints by asking her to make sure she signed the exception log.  As such, the judge authoring the dissenting opinion felt that a reasonable jury could view such acts as supervisor pressure for the nurse not to report her missed breaks, which would point to constructive knowledge of unpaid time.

Lessons for Employers:  There are several things that employers should take away from this case.  First, employers should establish a reasonable process for employees to report unpaid work time.  Second, even though the court ruled in favor of the employer, it was a split decision with the dissent indicating that the employer should have responded to the employee’s complaints about working through her meal breaks by asking the employee to make sure that she followed the reporting procedure.  Accordingly, to be on the safe side, employers should train their supervisors to provide such a response in the event that there are complaints about working through breaks or working overtime and, to be be on the extra safe side, to record such exchanges in writing.

This article is authored by attorney Shannon O. Young and is intended for educational purposes and to give you general information and a general understanding of the law only, not to provide specific legal advice. Any particular questions should be directed to your legal counsel or, if you do not have one, please feel free to contact us.

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