April 6, 2015 – Wisconsin regulations require employers to pay employees for meal breaks lasting less than 30 minutes. One company wasn’t paying for 20-minute meal breaks, but workers won’t get back pay, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled.
Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) regulations allow waivers to required meal-break pay if workers and employers agree, and a waiver request is filed.
Union workers at Husco International Inc. agreed to unpaid meal breaks in collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) since 1983, opting instead for a work shift shortened by 10 minutes. But a regulation waiver request was never filed with the DWD.
In 2006, when the conflict was discovered, the union requested payment for unpaid breaks despite the CBAs. Husco requested a joint waiver be filed with DWD. The union said it would file a joint waiver if Husco agreed to better CBA terms. Husco declined.
Instead, Husco ended the 20-minute meal breaks and began paying for 30-minute breaks, which meant the workers’ shifts would be extended by 10 minutes.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, a union representing Husco employees, filed a complaint with the DWD, seeking back pay for workers who weren’t paid for the 20-minute meal breaks during a two-year period.
DWD concluded that the parties had agreed to the pay waiver, and shorter meal breaks did not jeopardize the life, health, safety, or welfare of the workers. Thus, it declined to seek back pay on behalf of the Husco International workers. However, the DWD indicated that the workers could file a civil lawsuit under Wis. Stat. section 109.11, which allows workers to file wage claim suits to review administrative decisions.
Six workers filed a class action suit in circuit court on behalf of themselves and similarly situated workers. Husco raised defenses and removed the case to federal court as an issue of federal law, but the federal district court sent it back to state court.
Ultimately, a state appeals court ruled in favor of the workers, concluding that a collective bargaining agreement cannot trump the state’s meal-break regulation and Husco was required to pay workers for breaks under 30 minutes without a waiver.
But in Aguilar v. Husco International Inc., 2015 WI 36 (April 1, 2015), a unanimous Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed, concluding the workers won’t get back pay.
The supreme court said the DWD’s decision not to seek recovery of back pay was consistent with the purpose of the regulation, which is to protect the life, health, safety, and welfare of the employees, and to “accommodate reasonable departures from the rule on meal break length” where labor and management have agreed on that issue.
It was DWD’s position, the court noted, that the workers would be unjustly enriched if entitled to back pay despite agreeing to unpaid meal-time in CBAs, and failing to seek a waiver from the DWD was a technical error that did not jeopardize worker rights.
“We cannot say that the decision not to pursue an award of back pay is unreasonable,” wrote Justice Crooks wrote, noting the DWD’s decision was entitled to great weight deference. “Nor can we say that it is contrary to the purpose of the statute.”