My law partner and I have blogged, trained, and also counseled clients about the importance of having updated Employee Handbooks at their workplaces. A court case out of Pennsylvania confirms the point we have been trying to make at an expensive price for the employer!

According to Pennsylvania attorney Jodi Frankel, Wal-Mart was just ordered to pay $187.6 million in back pay, damages, and fees to 187,000 current and former employees. It seems Walmart included paid break language in their Employee Handbook, and then failed to provide the benefit.

Frankel noted the Handbook policies in question “…[n]ot only guaranteed, but also mandated, a single fifteen-minute rest break to an employee who worked more than three hours in a shift, and two such breaks if an employee worked more than six hours. Pursuant to the policy, the breaks were to be ‘full, timely, uninterrupted’ and employees were to receive compensation for break time at the applicable rate of pay. The rest break policy set forth in Wal-Mart’s employee handbook, which was provided to all employees at the start of employment.”

While the Handbook stated it was not to be considered a contract by the employee, the Pennsylvania court found Wal-Mart had in fact made a promise regarding rest breaks, and that the promise amounted to a contract. The facts the Court found compelling included Wal-Mart had repeatedly held out rest breaks to employees as a benefit of being employed at Wal-Mart during employee orientation, they mentioned breaks in numerous postings at the workplace, and had taken disciplinary action against managers and employees for failure to follow the rest break policy.

While a Pennsylvania court case interpreting Pennsylvania law is not determinative in Minnesota workplaces, this case does offer some insight for Minnesota employers. Careful attention was paid by the Court to Wal-Mart’s Employee Handbook, and comparison to its actual business practices.

Since this is a start of a new year, it is the perfect time for employers to review and update their employee handbooks to insure they are consistent with current business practices. Also remember to update your policies when you update technology. If the start of a new year doesn’t inspire you to review your business practices, consider the cost and expense of litigation over an employee handbook issue.