How long do "on-duty" meal periods have to be? 30 minutes.


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.

Pull up a chair...and listen to the nightmarish tale of....suitable seating (in Kilby v. CVS Pharmacy, Inc.)

I can still remember when the first suitable seating cases were filed.  I reckon' it happened right about the time that the wage & hour landscape became unsettled in the meal period and rest break areas, class certification decisions were all over the place prior to Brinker, and PAGA claims were getting a long look as an alternative and supplemental approach to class claims.  The suitable seating cases went through an initial wave of appellate court analysis, but, without California Supreme Court guidance on the issue, federal courts were left to speculate about what the California Supreme Court would say on the matter.  The Ninth Circuit addressed that lack of clarity by certifying questions to the California Supreme Court.  In Kilby v. CVS Pharmacy, Inc. (April 4, 2016), the California Supreme Court answered those questions.

The questions, as posed by the Ninth Circuit were:

(1) Does the phrase “nature of the work” refer to individual tasks performed throughout the workday, or to the entire range of an employee’s duties performed during a given day or shift? 
(2) When determining whether the nature of the work “reasonably permits” use of a seat, what factors should courts consider?  Specifically, are an employer’s business judgment, the physical layout of the workplace, and the characteristics of a specific employee relevant factors? 
(3) If an employer has not provided any seat, must a plaintiff prove a suitable seat is available in order to show the employer has violated the seating provision? 

Slip op., at 2.  The short answers (which were followed by an extensive discussion) are:

(1) The “nature of the work” refers to an employee’s tasks performed at a given location for which a right to a suitable seat is claimed, rather than a “holistic” consideration of the entire range of an employee’s duties anywhere on the jobsite during a complete shift.  If the tasks being performed at a given location reasonably permit sitting, and provision of a seat would not interfere with performance of any other tasks that may require standing, a seat is called for. 
(2) Whether the nature of the work reasonably permits sitting is a question to be determined objectively based on the totality of the circumstances.  An employer’s business judgment and the physical layout of the workplace are relevant but not dispositive factors.  The inquiry focuses on the nature of the work, not an individual employee’s characteristics. 
(3) The nature of the work aside, if an employer argues there is no suitable seat available, the burden is on the employer to prove unavailability. 

Slip op., at 2.  Before looking at any of the more interesting parts of the Court's discussion, we now know with certainty that suitable seating is a task-based, not a position-based, requirement.  And I immediately concluded after reading this opinion that I wanted to start a business that specializes in making narrow and light barstool-style swivel chairs for cashiers in the retail and grocery sectors.  That's where the real money is going to be found.

Anyhow, chair empire plans aside, the Court began by explaining the history of the IWC and the suitable seating provision in the various wage orders.  Next, the Court looked at pronouncements on the most recent standard by the IWC and DLSE. For instance, the Court took note of a DLSE amicus curiae brief filed in a federal action:

[T]he DLSE filed an amicus curiae brief in Garvey v. Kmart Corp. (N.D.Cal. Dec. 18, 2012, No. CV 11-02575 WHA) 2012 WL 6599534 (Garvey), a federal class action suit claiming Kmart cashiers were entitled, under section 14(A), to seats while working.  The DLSE emphasized reasonableness as the guiding standard:  “If called upon to enforce Section 14, DLSE would apply a reasonableness standard that would fully consider all existing conditions regarding the nature of the work performed by employees.  Upon an examination of the nature of the work, DLSE would determine whether the work reasonably permits the use of seats for working employees under subsection (A) of Section 14, and whether proximate seating has been provided for employees not engaged in active duties when such employees are otherwise required to stand under subsection (B).”

Slip op., at 11.  After reviewing the DLSE and IWC commentary on the suitable seating requirement, the Court then set about the task of examining the IWC wage order language. After reviewing the language, the Court rejected the defendants' position that jobs should be classified as "sitting" jobs or "standing" jobs:

Defendants’ argument sweeps too broadly and is inconsistent with the purpose of the seating requirement.  As discussed, the IWC’s wage orders were promulgated to provide a minimum level of protection for workers.  The requirement’s history reflects a determination by the IWC that “humane consideration for the welfare of employees requires that they be allowed to sit at their work or between operations when it is feasible for them to do so.”  (IWC, Statement of Findings by the Industrial Welfare Commission of the State of Cal. in Connection with the Revision in 1976 of its Orders Regulating Wages, Hours, and Working Conditions (Aug. 13, 1976) p. 15.)  Defendants’ proposed consideration of all tasks included in an employee’s job description ignores the duration of those tasks, as well as where, and how often, they are performed.  This all-or-nothing approach could deprive an employee of a seat because most of his job duties are classified as “standing” tasks, even though the duration, frequency, and location of the employee’s most common tasks would make seated work feasible while performing them.  There is no principled reason for denying an employee a seat when he spends a substantial part of his workday at a single location performing tasks that could reasonably be done while seated, merely because his job duties include other tasks that must be done standing.

Slip op., at 14.  The Court expressed concern that the all-or-nothing approach could result in a situation where two employees performing the same task could have different seating rights, based on the overall classification of their job. Yet, the Court also found the plaintiffs' position too narrow, focusing on a single task to determine if that one task could be performed seated.  The Court found that focusing on the work done and the tasks performed in a location alleviated the problems created by both the defendants' approach and the plaintiffs' approach.

The Court then examined the "reasonably permits" portion of the seating requirements. The Court found that the employer's assessment of overall job performance (its business judgment) was a factor that could be considered, as was the physical layout of the workplace .  These factors, however, must be considered "in light of the overall aims of the regulatory scheme, which has always been employee protection."  The Court disagreed that differences between employees was a factor, since the regulation focused on the "work," and not the "worker."

Finally, the Court swiftly rejected the idea that a plaintiff must prove that a suitable seat is available, after showing that the nature of the work would reasonably permit the use of a seat.

The Court concluded by saying, "Sit on that."  No, not really.  But the Court was unanimous.

IWC (or any agency) is limited by its statutory mandate

Agencies love their power.  They grow like a cancer, absorbing more and more of it from the body politic.  But every now and then a court reminds an agency that its power is limited by the terms of its statutory authority.  For instance, in Gerard v. Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center (Feb. 10, 2015), the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division Three) did just that with regard to a provision of an IWC Wage Order.

Health care workers sued their hospital employer in a putative class and private attorney general enforcement action for alleged Labor Code violations and related claims.  Plaintiffs alleged, among other things, that the hospital illegally let health care employees waive their second meal periods on shifts longer than 12 hours.  Under the Labor Code, employers are required to provide two meal periods for shifts longer than 12 hours. But an order of the Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC) authorizes employees in the health care industry to waive one of those two required meal periods on shifts longer than 8 hours.  The trial court, finding the IWC Wage Order valid, and granted summary judgment and denied class certification on that basis.

The Court examined Labor Code section 512 and Wage Order 5 to determine whether the Wage Order exemption was authorized.  The Court first observed that section 512 says: “An employer may not employ an employee for a work period of more than 10 hours per day without providing the employee with a second meal period of not less than 30 minutes, except that if the total hours worked is no more than 12 hours, the second meal period may be waived by mutual consent of the employer and the employee only if the first meal period was not waived.” (Italics added.)  And section 516 says: “Except as provided in Section 512, the [IWC] may adopt or amend working condition orders with respect to break periods, meal periods, and days of rest for any workers in California consistent with the health and welfare of those workers.” (Italics added.)

Next, the Court noted that the authority of an administrative agency is limited by enabling legislation, holding that the IWC is constrained where the Labor Code expressly sets forth requirements:

“The IWC has long been understood to have the power to adopt requirements beyond those codified in statute. [Citations.] Section 516 creates an exception; it bars the use of this power to diminish section 512’s protections. . . . While the Legislature in section 516 generally preserved the IWC’s authority to regulate break periods, it intended to prohibit the IWC from amending its wage orders in ways that ‘conflict[ ] with [the] 30-minute meal period requirements’ in section 512. [Citations.]” (Brinker, supra, 53 Cal.4th at pp. 1042-1043.)

Slip op., at 8.  In its discussion, the Court cited frequently to Bearden v. U.S. Borax, Inc., 138 Cal. App. 4th 429 (2006), which held that another provision of a Wage Order issued by the IWC was invalid as an act inconsistent with statutory provisions.

The Court then directed the trial court to determine the retroactive application of portions of the Court’s holding, since the issue of invalidity was not evaluated by the trial court, holding that “with the exception of plaintiffs’ premium wage claims based on section 226.7, the retroactive application of our decision must be litigated on remand.”  The Court concluded that “there is no compelling reason of fairness or public policy that warrants an exception to the general rule of retroactivity for our decision partially invalidating section 11(D).”  Slip op., at 17.

The Court then turned to the grant of summary judgment in the matter.  The discussion detoured into evidentiary disputes.  The defendant objected to the introduction of time cards attached to counsel’s declaration, saying that they were merely purported to be authentic.  The Court disagreed:

Evidence Code section 1414 provides: “A writing may be authenticated by evidence that: [¶] (a) The party against whom it is offered has at any time admitted its authenticity; or [¶] (b) The writing has been acted upon as authentic by the party against whom it is offered.” The Coats declaration satisfies both subdivisions.
Further, while Claudio v. Regents of University of California (2005) 134 Cal.App.4th 224, 244 did say the declaration of the plaintiff’s attorney was not proper authentication for the disputed letter, the critical problem was that, “Plaintiff’s [own] declaration did not mention the letter.” The same is not true in this case.
Here, Gerard’s own declaration (an exhibit to the Coats declaration) states: “Attached as Exhibit B are true and correct copies of a portion of my time records from August of 2004 through March of 2008, which were produced by Defendant in this litigation. Also attached as Exhibit B are true and correct copies [of] a portion of my wage records from August of 2004 through March of 2008, which were produced by Defendant in this litigation.” A comparison of the bates numbers in Exhibit B reveals they are the same as the relevant documents in Exhibits 7 and 8.

Slip op., at 18.  The Court concluded its analysis of the summary judgment motion by finding that triable issues of fact were shown by the plaintiffs.

Finally, the Court held that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied class certification, relying on incorrect criteria:

McElroy and Carl argue the court improperly denied class certification for several reasons. Among other things they cite as an abuse of discretion the court’s community interest analysis based on its erroneous “legal assumption that ‘liability is not established by an illegal policy.’” Plaintiffs contend that assumption is contrary to the holding of Brinker, supra, 53 Cal.4th at page 1033, and Faulkinbury v. Boyd & Associates, Inc. (2013) 216 Cal.App.4th 220, 232. We conclude this argument has merit.

Slip op., at 20.  The Court remanded the matter for further consideration of the other aspects of certification that were not fully considered by the trial court.