A local airline employed a flight surgeon and assigned him at its medical clinic in Nichols. His regular shift was from 4:00 p.m. until 12:00 midnight. Living only five minutes away from his work, he regularly had dinner in his home.
One night, there was an emergency call from cargo services while the flight surgeon was at home having dinner. An employee suffered a heart attack. The nurse on duty called the flight surgeon to inform him of the emergency and he immediately left his home. The patient arrived at 7:50 p.m. and was immediately rushed to the hospital. Even though the flight surgeon arrived at 7:51 p.m., the patient was no longer in the premises. In an unfortunate turn of events, the employee died the following day.
Upon learning about the incident, the airline’s Medical Director ordered the Chief Flight Surgeon to conduct an investigation.
The Chief Flight Surgeon required the flight surgeon to explain why no disciplinary sanction should be taken against him. The flight surgeon maintained that he was entitled to a thirty-minute meal break and immediately left his home when he received the call about the heart attack. However, the nurse on duty panicked and brought the patient to the hospital without waiting for him.
Finding the explanation unacceptable, the management charged the flight surgeon with abandonment of post while on duty and suspended him for three (3) months. Upset, the flight surgeon filed a complaint for illegal suspension with the Labor Arbiter (LA). The LA declared that an illegal suspension did indeed take place and ordered that the flight surgeon was entitled to the amount equivalent to all the benefits he should have received during his period of suspension. On appeal, the National Labor and Relations Commission (NLRC) found the LA’s decision to be validly supported by the facts on record and the law on the matter.
The Supreme Court likewise supported the decision of the NLRC –
Private respondent left the clinic that night only to have his dinner at his house, which was only a few minutes’ drive away from the clinic. His whereabouts were known to the nurse on duty so that he could be easily reached in case of emergency.
Upon being informed of Mr. Acosta’s condition, private respondent immediately left his home and returned to the clinic. These facts belie petitioner’s claim of abandonment.
Moreover, the Court ruled that it was inaccurate for the airline to say that as a full-time employee, the flight surgeon was “obliged to stay in the company premises for not less than eight (8) hours” and could not “leave the company premises during such time, even to take his meals.”
Reiterating Articles 83 and 85 of the Labor Code, the SC clarified the rules on work hours in relation to meal periods –
[t]he eight-hour work period does not include the meal break.
Nowhere in the law may it be inferred that employees must take their meals within the company premises. Employees are not prohibited from going out of the premises as long as they return to their posts on time. Private respondent’s act, therefore, of going home to take his dinner does not constitute abandonment.
Section 7, Rule I, Book III of the Omnibus Rules Implementing the Labor Code provides that “every employer shall give his employees, regardless of sex, not less than one (1) hour time-off for regular meals, except in the following cases when a meal period of not less than twenty (20) minutes may be given by the employer provided that such shorter meal period is credited as compensable hours worked of the employee” (Philippine Airlines, Inc. v. NLRC, G.R. No. 132805, 2 February 1999, J. Puno).