Evil HRLady,

1)Can my company be held liable if an employee decides to leave the building during a paid break or lunch?
2)Can I tell my employees that they must clock out when leaving the building grounds?

We currently allow our employees to leave the building for lunch or breaks as long as they do not leave the office complex and surrounding buildings (Subway, Convenient Store, Restaurant…). We have a new employee that lives across the street from our complex goes home during lunch. Can I tell them that they can not do this? We also have other managers that leave the complex when they want to go to other places for lunch….Is is OK to say that it is not all right for one person and all right for the other (all are paid hourly).

Thanks for your input on this matter.

I’m trying to wrap my brain around this–a company that forbids employees to leave the campus during lunch. It sounds like Jr. High.

I am not a lawyer and have no idea about liability (and for what? Are your employees prone to injuring others or breaking laws?). However, I can tell you right now I wouldn’t work for you if you didn’t allow me to leave during lunch.

Granted, I only leave the office for lunch about once every other month, but that’s beside the point.

If they are hourly employees, why are you paying them for breaks anyway? Of course they should clock out. You shouldn’t be controlling what they do on breaks. If they are exempt you probably shouldn’t be focused on breaks anyway.

Let people go where they want to for lunch. You can limit the amount of time they have for lunch. (There are laws that vary from state to state on how much time people should get for a “lunch” break.) This limitation on time will probably keep them on the campus.

However, you aren’t required to let them leave. From the Department of Labor:

Where no permission to leave premises. It is not necessary that an employee be permitted to leave the premises if he is otherwise completely freed from duties during the meal period.

But, I’d really like to know why you want to prohibit them from leaving in the first place.

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13 thoughts on “Lunch

  1. I’m not a lawyer, but my clear understanding of this issue is as follows: If you have a paid lunch period, the employer may (and very probably should) prohibit you from leaving the premises; if you have an unpaid lunch period, the employer may not prohibit you from leaving. The reason for this is indeed liability. If you are on a paid lunch and are injured during that time period, whether on or off the premises, it is extemely likely that the injuries would be deemed to have “arisen in the course of your employment” and that the employer would be liable for medical payments, worker’s comp, etc.
    An example: In a manufacturing plant that runs 24/7, production employees are often on a paid lunch. They can’t leave the facility. Maintenance employees are often on an unpaid lunch and they can leave. If a production employee were allowed to leave to, say, pick up lunches for the people in his department and was involved in an accident, it would be “in the course of his employment”, and the employer would most likely be liable for any injuries he or others sustained, or damages he caused. Say he was driving too fast and killed someone. The employer’s exposure could be huge. Sometimes the rules that seem silly have a real basis, as these very things have happened. I once worked at a plant where an employee on a paid lunch left the plant, went to a bar, got in a fight and injured another person. The company ended up paying a substantial amount to avoid going to court.

  2. Well, that makes sense then. But, I see no reason to give anyone a paid lunch. I mean, it’s nice and all, but if you are being paid then you are under the thumb of the company and it’s not a real break.

  3. Here are a couple examples, all of which involve situations where a job must be staffed at all times, usually for monitoring purposes:

    1) Continuous process operations, such as chemical plants, oil refineries, nuclear plants, boiler house operations.
    2) Many security positions.

  4. I have worked in a continuous operation (airline), and in “some” positions, employees could not leave the building simply because of the type of job they were expected to do. Those employees were paid for lunch, and were aware that in return they were required to stay in the building. If they did have to leave the building for some work-related reason, they had to take the “on-call” cell.

    Employees not in these types of jobs (in the same company) were not paid for lunch and were permitted to do whatever they wished on lunch as they were not on paid company time.

  5. I agree with Evil. (What a great sentence!) I would not work for an employer, or in an industry, that does not allow me to leave at lunchtime. Freedom to choose what to do during my meal time is important to me.

    I can understand the liability issues. However, I’d imagine that any new rules put forth by the company of the person who originally asked the questions would have to be balanced by the culture of the workplace. Change is difficult in all circumstances, and if a company is going to institute a policy change around something that people feel is connected to their personal freedom — well, let’s just say that I’d hate to be the HR person who has to explain the new rules to current employees. It might be tough to get out of the room alive.

  6. A situation that highlights why I love my status as as “exempt” employee.

    Although it also gives me something to think about with regard to the hourly staff that report to me. Most of them schedule themselves and I review time charges. They are field inspectors so confining them to a set lunch time is impractical. Additionally their office is the vehicle they drive (cell phone, laptop, wireless comm, mounting racks, power inverter, etc.). Common practice in our business.

  7. Mike–
    But being staffed at all times doesn’t mean the staff has to stay at all times. If you schedule your breaks so that the entire crew isn’t gone at once, doesn’t that solve that problem?

    I understand that depending on location it may be impractical to leave for a 30 minute break, but it seems to me that prohibiting employees from leaving the building would be a rare thing.

  8. Example: In a chemical plant, refinery, etc. operators are assigned specific areas of an operating unit to phyiscally monitor, and there are “board operators” who monitor the operation of sections or entire units from inside control rooms. Extensive (and I do mean extensive) training is required for each of these jobs, especially as people progress up the chain. These people may well be the only ones who truly understand what is going on in a particular unit or section at any given time. They also must be available to handle upsets or emergency situations that may occur at any time. The outside operators come into the control room to eat lunch, but they can’t leave the unit. Likewise the board operators must remain in a position to continue to monitor what’s happening in their units. If they don’t, and something goes wrong, disaster may result. Not allowing employees to leave the plant or work area is a widespread and common practice in the various process industries. In these instances this pracice is a safety issue.

  9. Mike’s point, while accurate for those situations during which an employee is on a paid lunch or “engaged to wait” to work would be compensable under most state worker’s comp laws, is not related to the question above, however. It also would not likely apply to salaried employees anyway, who get paid continuously regardless. But other forms of liability? Unless their job is one that involves them driving for the company’s benefit, (a UPS person, for example), I don’t think there is any liability there. Of course, I’m not actually a lawyer either, but I do have a J.D. Anyone want to hire me to do labor relations? I am available. 🙂

    No really.

  10. Boy, I go to work and this place goes wild.

    I never knew there were so many jobs where people can’t leave the premises.

    And Holmes–my company is currently hiring a labor and employment lawyer to be head of ethics and EEO along with other general labor and employment law things. You qualified?

  11. No, I am not. But thank you for the thought. I’m more of an entry level person right now.

  12. In interpreting the sentence “ Where no permission to leave the premises. It is not necessary that an employee be permitted to leave the premises if he is otherwise freed from duties during the meal period” I interpret this to mean being a free American freed from duty of my employer I may come and go as I choose. Did I misinterpret the meaning? This woman believes it tells employers they don’t have to allow their employees to leave.

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