HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The U.S. Labor Department has found the Honolulu Board of Water Supply violated federal labor law by routinely denying its investigators lunch breaks for a two-year period in a case that could have implications for government and private sector employers across the state.
The Wage and Hour Division investigation involved about 15 Water Board investigators -- the people who check the accuracy of water meters or look for leaks if a customer's water bill spikes.
"Sometimes they'll either eat and work at the same time or they'll disregard their lunch until they finish their work day," said Terence Trotter, district director of the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour division.
Trotter said the Water Board automatically deducted a half hour for investigators' meal breaks regardless of whether they actually took them.
"When we found that workers, on average, weren't taking their meal breaks two to three times a week, that impacted their hours, work that they were paid in fact, they weren't paid for all their overtime hours," Trotter said.
So the 15 Water Board investigators have now been paid $16,152 in unpaid overtime wages, he said.
The feds found the violations began in January 2013 when the Water Board transferred to a troubled new billing system an audit found was poorly managed leading to increased billing errors and customer complaints, which kept investigators extra busy.
In a statement, the Board of Water Supply said it's "fully cooperating" but "unable to discuss this matter as the investigation by the US Department of Labor is ongoing."
Federal labor officials said the case has a broader lesson for other employers, especially those with lots of workers in the field.
"To be a bona fide meal break, it's not 'I ate my lunch, therefore the employer can deduct a half hour.' It means I got, generally speaking, at least a half hour break removed from my assigned duties and responsibilities," Trotter said. "And if you're eating and working at the same time, for example, that doesn't qualify as a bona fide meal break."
"If you get 30 minutes of meal break time but it's ten minutes here, ten minutes there and ten minutes over there. That's not uninterrupted. And therefore it needs to be paid," he added.
Federal labor officials said other employers can avoid similar violations by simply having their employees mark down on their time sheets each day whether they got a lunch break.
Trotter said Water Board officials are compiling a plan with specific steps it will be taking to make sure the same problem doesn't happen in the future.
"You want to confirm with an employee, whenever you're taking an automatic meal break, especially for a field worker, that the records are accurate," Trotter said.