This really feels like the setup for a bad joke that only employment lawyers in California would get. Question: How long does an “on-duty” meal period have to be? Answer: 30 minutes. Follow-up: But….it’s “on-duty.” Put your hand down. I’m not calling on you. In L’Chaim House, Inc. v. Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (July 31, 2019), the Court of Appeal (First Appellate District, Division One), the Court was called upon to review a wage and hour citation by the DLSE. The Court summarized, “On appeal, L’Chaim claims that under the applicable Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC) wage order, it may require its employees to work “on-duty” meal periods that, unlike periods when employees are ‘relieved of all duty,’ do not need to be at least 30 minutes long.” (Slip op., at 1.)
The Court’s discussion was more interesting than you might think, since the Court necessarily had to explain the difference between on-duty and off-duty meal periods, and what events can transform one into the other. This led to the Court’s rejection of the appellant’s position:
What L’Chaim misunderstands is 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. Recognizing this, the trial court stated that even if L’Chaim’s employees were not entitled to “an uninterrupted meal period,” they “may at least be afforded 30 minutes of limited duty enabling them to eat their meal in relative peace.” L’Chaim attacks the notion that its “employees may be given ‘limited duty’ while on a meal break” as creating “several absurd consequences.” According to L’Chaim, because employees do not clock out for on-duty meal periods, there is no way to track the length of those periods. In addition, “the creation of a new ‘limited duty’ requirement to [Wage Order No. 5, subdivision 11(E)] would force employers to delineate which tasks an employee is expected to perform during his or her on-duty meal period,” which L’Chaim claims “would be difficult and even potentially dangerous for the residents.”
But any such practical challenges are inherent in providing “on-duty meal periods” at all, not just periods of a particular length. Moreover, the question presented here is whether an on-duty meal period must be at least 30 minutes long, not how courts might evaluate the adequacy of the period under different factual scenarios. Thus, while we do not address what constitutes an acceptable on-duty meal period in the context of this case, what we can say is that employees of 24-hour residential care facilities for seniors are unambiguously entitled to “on-duty meal periods” under subdivision 11(E). L’Chaim’s interpretation would effectively read that requirement out of Wage Order No. 5.
Slip op., at 5. If this still doesn’t convince you, the Court made one final observation that seems pretty solid:
Finally, even if any doubt remained, we agree with the DLSE that section 512 compels the same conclusion. Under that statute, which L’Chaim does not address in its briefing, an employer is prohibited from “employ[ing] an employee for a work period of more than five hours per day without providing the employee with a meal period of not less than 30 minutes,” unless the employee works no more than six hours in a day and agrees to waive the meal period. (§ 512, subd. (a).) Although section 512 contains exceptions for workers in several industries, none of them apply here. And although the IWC has broad authority to “adopt or amend working condition orders with respect to . . . meal periods . . . for any workers in California consistent with the health and welfare of those workers,” at all relevant times—including when subdivision 11(E) was added to Wage Order No. 5—that authority has been specifically limited “as provided in Section 512.”
Slip op., at 7. The Wage Orders cannot negate Labor Code provisions. The balance of the decision is worth a quick read if you practice in this area.