Seyfarth Synopsis: A California Court of Appeal has held that on-duty meal periods under IWC Wage Order No. 5 must be at least 30 minutes long. While the Court of Appeal’s ruling involved employees of 24-hour residential care facilities for seniors, the ruling is apt to apply to on-duty meal periods generally.

The Facts

L’Chaim House, Inc. and its owner, (colletively, “L’Chaim”) were cited by the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (“DLSE”) for wage and hour violations. The citations were for, among other things, L’Chaim’s failure to provide 30-minute meal periods under IWC Wage Order No. 5, which governs the public housekeeping industry. After an unsuccessful administrative appeal, challenging the DLSE citations imposed, L’Chaim filed an appeal with the trial court, which was denied. On the subsequent appeal, the Court of Appeal considered whether the on-duty meal periods authorized by IWC Wage Order No. 5, subsdivision 11(E) must be at least 30 minutes long. Subdivision 11(E) creates a special exception from the general on-duty meal period requirements of subdivision 11(A) for certain employees involved in residential care.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Court of Appeal concluded that a residential care employee subject to subdivision 11(E) of Wage Order No. 5 “is still entitled to a 30-minute meal period even though that meal period may be on-duty instead of off-duty.” The Court of Appeal concluded that “an on-duty meal period is not the functional equivalent of no meal period at all. On-duty meal periods are an intermediate category requiring more of employees than off-duty meal periods but less of employees than their normal work.”

L’Chaim unsuccessfully argued that employers with employees are covered by subdivision 11(E) of Wage Order No. 5 are exempt from complying with any part of subdivision 11(A), including the requirements that meal periods be at least 30 minutes long. The Court of Appeal disagreed and clarified that subdivision 11(E) “creates an exception to subdivision 11(A) by authorizing an employer to mandate on-duty meal periods without the need to reach a revocable waiver agreement with its employees,” if certain requirements are met. However, the subdivision 11(E) exception does not change the underlying requirement that a meal period must still be at least 30 minutes long (even though the employee remains on-duty during the meal period).

What L’Chaim Means to Employers

If extended to the other on-duty meal period provisions of the various Wage Orders, the L’Chaim decision teaches that, no matter the industry, the best practice for employers who make use of on-duty meal periods is to provide employees with a meal period of at least 30 minutes. Put differently, the on-duty nature of a meal period does not change the underlying requirement that employers must provide meal periods that are at least 30 minutes long. Employers that fail to provide employees with on-duty meal periods that are at least 30 minutes long could be exposed to claims for meal period penalties. Unfortunately, L’Chaim provides no guidance as to what types of duties, if any, an employee taking an on-duty meal may be required to perform.