Court Case Underscores Importance of Accurate Timekeeping
Many employers are confused by how lunch and meal periods fit in with Massachusetts overtime requirements.
A recent Massachusetts Appeals Court decision in Vitali v. Reit Management & Research, LLC is a reminder of how important it is for employers to keep accurate time and attendance records for employees in order to determine when overtime compensation is due. Failure to do so can lead to a costly wage and hour lawsuit.
Donna Vitali was an hourly employee for Reit, a property-management company. Reit exceeded the requirements of the Massachusetts meal break law (30 minutes, unpaid, for a work shift lasting more than six hours) by providing employees with a paid one-hour lunch break. Reit had rolled out a new timekeeping system, informing employees that they were only required to clock in and out at the start and end of the day and did not have to punch in and out for lunch. However, the instructions also stated that if employees worked through lunch, they had to use the “hours worked” code located in a dropdown menu.
The employees found that instructions for recording hours worked during lunch were confusing and not adequately explained. If an employee did not use the dropdown menu to select the hours worked code, the employer would assume that the employee did not work through lunch. Vitali and other employees routinely ate lunch at their desks while accepting and carrying out work assignments. However, the employer’s practice was to pay overtime only if an employee “clocked” more than 45 hours in a workweek, factoring in that five of the hours were the employee’s one-hour paid lunch, unless the employee specifically recorded that they had worked through lunch.
Vitali filed a lawsuit seeking overtime compensation, claiming she had “routinely worked through her lunch hour” and sought relief for herself and similarly situated employees under the Massachusetts Minimum Fair Wage Law. The court found there was a question of “facts” about whether Reit knew or should have known that Vitali was working through all or part of her lunch break and that the company’s instructions for using the dropdown menu could be considered confusing. The significant takeaway is the court’s insistence that it is an employer’s responsibility to ensure that its timekeeping records comply with Massachusetts regulation -454 C. M. R. 27.07(2), which requires an employer to keep accurate records for an employee as to “the hours worked each day.”
Be sure you have a timekeeping system that accurately records all the hours worked by your employees. Otherwise, you may have trouble proving the hours the employee actually did work — and the last place you want to be is in a “he said/she said” battle before a jury. In Massachusetts, if the court rules in favor of your employee, they are automatically entitled to recover triple damages.