In some industries, it is common for employers to automatically deduct a 30 minute unpaid meal period from their employees’ pay during each shift they work. However, these automatically deducted breaks may be considered compensable work time in certain circumstances.

Employees inhibited in their ability to move about during meal periods often times need to be compensated. Wisconsin law provides that a meal period during which an employee is not free to leave the employer’s premises must be compensated. So, if an employer insists that employees remain on site during unpaid meal periods, regardless of whether they are free from work during the meal period, the employees must be compensated for their time.

Some jobs require that employees remain on call during unpaid meal periods. Being on call during a meal period is permitted only if an employee is able to spend his/her unpaid meal period predominately for his/her own benefit. If the requirement to be on call subjects the employee to frequent interruptions or limits their ability to move about freely, a court may find that the unpaid meal period was for the benefit of the employer and should be compensated.

Whether an automatically deducted meal period should be paid will depend on the circumstances particular to each employer. However, both Wisconsin law and the Fair Labor Standards Act provide protection to employees who may be subject to improper deductions for meal periods.

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David Zoeller