A group of corrections officers at the Butler County, Pennsylvania prison sued the County under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The County required the officers to work eight and one-quarter hour shifts, which include a meal period, but only paid them for eight hours of work. The County required the officers to take a one-hour meal break during their shifts. During their meal periods, the officers were required to remain within the prison, in their uniforms, and remain “on call to respond to emergencies.”
A federal court turned away the officers’ claim for compensation under the FLSA. The Court noted that “if during meal periods a police officer’s time and attention are primarily occupied by a private pursuit, presumably the procurement and consumption of food, then the officer is completely relieved from duty and is not entitled to compensation under the FLSA. Conversely, a police officer is entitled to compensation for meal periods if the officer’s time or attention is taken up principally by official responsibilities that prevent the officer from comfortably and adequately passing the mealtime.”
In the Court’s eyes, the corrections officers could not show that their meal periods were primarily for the benefit of the County. The Court held: “Here, the corrections officers are ‘restricted’ from leaving the prison during their meal period – not even to go outside and smoke a cigarette or to go to their cars in the parking lot. The Court finds that the corrections officers are, in fact, confined to their ‘jurisdiction’ – i.e., the prison. Although the confinement of corrections officers to the prison benefits the employer, it must predominantly benefit the employer. This Court finds that the corrections officers’ mere physical confinement to the prison does not rise to the level of ‘predominantly’ being of benefit to the employer.
“Moreover, the ‘confinement’ of the corrections officers to the prison does not rise to the level of predominantly being of benefit to the employer from a common sense standpoint. By keeping the officers on call, in uniform, and in close proximity to their gear, the County is able to include these corrections officers in their calculation of a safe inmate-to corrections-officers ratio. If a prison riot occurs while some corrections officers are in the midst of their meal periods, the meal-period officers’ ability to dress quickly into riot gear and assist their fellow officers in quelling the riot largely benefits those fellow officers – as well as the safety of the meal-period officers. Thus, the Court finds that the ability to respond to an emergency in the quickest fashion possible – by remaining inside the prison during meal breaks – at a minimum, is of equal benefit to the corrections officers and their employer.
“Here, the officers do not allege or argue corrections officers were required to take their meal break in the area(s) or zone(s) to which they were assigned; nor do they argue that they were required to work from any sort of assigned work stations where their routine paperwork is completed. There are no allegations or arguments suggesting that the officers were required to wear their riot gear during their meal periods. Likewise, there are no allegations or arguments suggesting they must confine their attention solely to the inmates and refrain from doing anything personal during their meal periods, such as take and make personal phone calls, surf the internet, etc.”
Babcock v. Butler County, 2014 WL 688122 (W.D. Pa. 2014).