While the California Labor Code specifies that an off-duty meal period must consist of at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted time during which the employee is relieved of all duties, the duration requirement for an on-duty meal period has been less clear—until now. The California Court of Appeal has now held that an on-duty meal period must last at least 30 minutes as well. L’Chaim House, Inc. v. Division of Labor Standard Enforcement, A152975 (Sonoma County Superior Court No. SCV-259820, July 31, 2019)
Defendant L’Chaim operates two 24-hour residential care homes for seniors, at which it provided its employees with on-duty meal periods that were not always at least 30 minutes long. The Division of Labor Standard Enforcement (“DLSE”) cited L’Chaim, and the trial court upheld the citation, finding that although L’Chaim was eligible to provide on-duty meal periods, those meal periods must be at least 30 minutes long.
On appeal, L’Chaim argued that Subdivision 11(A) of Wage Order No. 5, stating that “[u]nless the employee is relieved of all duty during a 30 minute meal period, the meal period shall be considered ‘on duty’ meal period and counted as time worked,” recognizes that there could be instances in which an employee’s on-duty meal period could be less than 30 minutes. The Court of Appeals rejected L’Chaim’s argument, explaining that such a reading would turn an on-duty meal period to no meal period at all. Rather, the Court opined that an on-duty meal period is a permissible intermediate category which calls for more work than off-duty meal period, but less effort from an employee than working hours. Even if the meal period is on-duty, the meal period still needs to last at least 30 minutes.
Justice Banke’s concurrence provides some further guidance. She explained that because employees taking on-duty meal periods do not have an uninterrupted or unfettered right to leave the employer’s premise, “the adequacy of lawful ‘on-duty’ meal periods is not easily evaluated.” Justice Banke observed that the very nature of a 24 hour residential care facility envision employees helping residents with basic tasks, such as helping pour a glass of water, cut food, and escorting residents to and from the restroom, during their meal period. She explained that “[i]f these sorts of duties do not unduly impinge on the opportunity of employees to eat a nutritious meal without being rushed over the course of a half hour,” then the employee will have been afforded a lawful on-duty meal period. But if employees feels rushed to eat his or her meal, then the employees would not have been afforded an adequate on-duty meal period.
What Employers Should Know
L’Chaim clarifies that employees with on-duty meal breaks must receive 30 minutes such breaks, just like employees who receive off-duty meal periods. Because the nature of on-duty meal periods require employees to do some work, the challenge is determining how much work is too much. As Justice Banke explained, employers should ask this question to determine whether an on-duty meal period is sufficient: is the employee able to eat an meal without rushing? If the on-duty work is too much, employers should restructure employees’ work schedule so that they have time to eat their meals.