A group of nurses and nurses’ assistants alleging that their employer, a health care system, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to compensate them for interrupted meal periods filed a collective action in behalf of themselves and other similarly situated employees. Usually, at the early, “notice” stage a court only requires a preliminary showing that plaintiffs’ claims are sufficiently representative of those of other putative class members. In this case, however, the district court took the unusual step of denying the plaintiffs’ motion based on its view that the evidence obtained during pre-trial discovery did not support their claim that that the employer had a “policy” of forcing nurses and assistants to respond to pages and work during their unpaid lunch breaks. Blaney, et al. v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg Hosp. Auth. d/b/a Carolinas Healthcare Sys., No. 10-cv-592 (N.C. Dist. Ct. Sept. 16, 2011). This was an excellent outcome for the employer, as cases certified as a collective action often are settled because of the risk of huge damage awards and the extraordinary cost of litigating them to verdict. This decision also points to some important preventive strategies.
Preventive Strategy Recommendations: Interrupted meal breaks are common in acute care and other healthcare settings and many organizations are vulnerable to these collective actions, especially where they automatically deduct a half hour for meal breaks. For this reason, there is a growing trend to adopt the “best practice” of requiring staff to “swipe out” for meal periods and swipe back in when they have to return to the unit. Even where the automatic deduction practice is maintained, it is important to have a written policy explaining that staff are to alert the supervisor when their meal periods have been missed or interrupted due to patient care responsibilities, so that they can be appropriately be paid for such time. The Facility should document the dissemination of this policy to supervisors and staff and take the added step of conducting in-services on the policy. These steps will go a long way to eliminating the problem and preventing and/or defeating FLSA claims and efforts to win certification of any collective action.