Wages for Meal Breaks in Massachusetts

Under Massachusetts law, employees are entitled to a 30-minute meal break for each six-hour period that they work.  M.G.L. c. 149, s. 100 states, “No person shall be required to work for more than six hours during a calendar day without an interval of at least thirty minutes for a meal.” This meal break may be unpaid if, and only if, certain conditions apply.

The key condition is that for a meal break to be unpaid the employee must be relieved of all work-related duties.  The regulation setting out that requirement can be read here, under the Working Time definition in Section 201.  The Massachusetts standard is more employee friendly that the standard under federal law, which asks a different question.  Under federal law, a meal break can be unpaid if the employee still has job duties while on break but if the employee is not predominantly spending the break time performing activities for the employer’s benefit. The federal courts in Massachusetts have sometimes grafted this much stricter standard onto claims under the state wage law.  One such recent example is Raposo v. Garelick Farms, LLC, CIV.A. 11-11943-NMG, 2014 WL 2468815 (D. Mass. June 2, 2014).

The reason for this may be that there is a similar federal regulation to the state regulation, the “completely relieved from duty” test from 29 C.F.R. § 785.19(a)–and the federal courts have rejected it.  As one federal court put it while examining whether employees had a right to get paid under federal law and concluding that they did not, “Although a question of first impression in this Circuit, the majority of the Circuits that have had occasion to address the issue have rejected the ‘completely relieved from duty’ test in favor of the ‘predominantly for the benefit of the employer’ test when determining whether meal periods are considered ‘hours worked’. Using this test, meal periods are considered ‘work’ only when an employee predominantly spends the time performing activities for the employer’s benefit.” O’Hara v. Menino, 253 F. Supp. 2d 147, 155-56 (D. Mass. 2003).

The reason that some federal court have not followed the federal regulation is because of how work was defined by the Supreme Court in 1944 (as “physical or mental exertion (whether burdensome or not) controlled or required by the employer and pursued necessarily and primarily for the benefit of the employer and his businesses.” Tennessee Coal v. Muscoda, 321 U.S. 590, 598 (1944)).

I believe that it is wrong to use a standard derived from 1940s federal law to interpret the Massachusetts Wage Act and related state regulations.  The Supreme Judicial Court recently noted, in Cook v. Patient Edu, LLC, 465 Mass. 548, 554 (2013), that the Wage Act has had been “gradually expanded” to achieve that goal of protecting employee wages. In interpreting the language of the Wage Act, the Supreme Judicial Court specifically noted the need to use a “liberal, even if not literally exact, interpretation of certain words…to accomplish the purpose” of the statute, as opposed to “one which will defeat that purpose.” Therefore, there is no restrictive guidance from the highest state court that should lead courts to seek to navigate around clear regulations.  In fact, there is the contrary.

Under Massachusetts law, the question regarding whether a meal break is required to be paid must be the one set forth in black and white: whether the employee is relieved of all work-related duties.  Duties can be active or inactive.