(This guest post was written by attorneys from Mirick O’Connell)
The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office recently entered into a settlement with the Gymboree Corporation related to allegations that Gymboree had been violating the Massachusetts Meal Break statute, M.G.L. c. 149, § 100. Pursuant to the settlement, Gymboree is required to pay $130,000 to current and former employees of the corporation and $320,000 in penalties to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for meal break violations. In addition, $13,600 is to be set aside to update company policies to ensure compliance with the Meal Break law on a going forward basis.
The Meal Break statute requires that all employees receive a 30-minute meal break after six hours of working. The break may be unpaid, but employees must be permitted to leave the workplace during the break. If an employee is either prohibited from leaving the workplace or is required to do any work during his or her meal break, the meal break must be paid.
Employers often inadvertently violate the Meal Break statute as a result of payroll systems that automatically deduct for meal break periods, even when employees choose to work through the meal break on their own. Under such circumstances, the employer is liable for a failure to pay wages for the meal break. Further, such violations expose the employer to potential claims for treble damages and attorney’s fees under the Massachusetts Payment of Wages statute.
Employees, however, may voluntarily waive their right to a meal break. To do so, employers should have employees sign written waivers clearly demonstrating that the employee voluntarily waived his or her right to a break.
In light of the significant monetary exposure that can result from a failure to strictly follow the Meal Break statute, employers are well-advised to audit their current practices to ensure meal breaks are provided for all employees who work in excess of six hours, written waivers are used for employees who voluntarily choose to waive the meal break period, and in circumstances in which employees are either required to remain on the work premises during their meal break or conduct any level of work during the meal break, such employees receive pay for that break period.