In California, employers must provide employees with a thirty-minute, uninterrupted off-duty meal period whenever an employee works more than five (5) hours. However, there are certain jobs that can qualify for an "on duty" meal period. An "on duty" meal period is permitted only when the nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duty and the employee and the employer agree in writing that an on-the-job meal period is acceptable. The written agreement must state that the employee may, in writing, revoke the agreement at any time. This is a narrow exception to the general rule that a non-exempt employee must be relieved of all duty during his/his meal period for no less than 30 minutes. Just recently, the California Court of Appeal provided employers with some guidance regarding the duration of an "on duty" meal period, in a lawsuit involving L'Chaim House, Inc. ("L'Chaim").
L'Chaim operates 24-hour residential care homes for seniors. Because of the nature of its employees' work, coupled with the significant needs of its residents, L'Chaim and its employees agreed to institute "on duty" meal periods so that the employees could continue to care for the residents during their meal periods. However, the state's Division of Labor Standards Enforcement ("DLSE), the agency tasked with enforcement of labor laws, discovered that L'Chaim's employees were not being given a minimum of 30 minutes for their "on duty" meal periods. The DLSE cited L'Chaim for wage and hour violations and fined L'Chaim roughly $89,000 for the purported violations. L'Chaim challenged the citation and fine through the courts. L'Chaim's position was that the requirement for a "30 minute meal period" only applied to those meal periods where the employees were relieved of all duty.
The trial court and the Court of Appeal disagreed with L'Chaim and held that meal periods must be at least 30 minutes, regardless of whether they are on-duty or off-duty. The court stated that "an on-duty meal period is not the functional equivalent of no meal period at all." Moreover, the court stated that even though 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." In addition to the $89,000 fine, the court awarded the DLSE with its costs for L'Chaim's appeal.
One Justice of the Court of Appeal issued her own "concurring" opinion in which she addressed the complexities of "on duty" meal periods beyond the simple requirement that they last at least 30 minutes. She provided that, "If [the employees' duties] do not unduly impinge on the opportunity of the employees to eat a nutritional meal without being rushed over the course of a half hour, it certainly seems the employees will have been afforded adequate lawful 'on-duty' meal periods. On the other hand, if employees feel pressured to eat meals as quickly as possible and to jump up as soon as they swallow their final bite and turn their full attention to whatever work awaits them, then it would seem the employees have not been afforded adequate 'on-duty' meal periods."
Instituting an "on duty" meal period requires careful analysis to ensure that they are proper under the circumstances. This case provides a simple conclusion – "on duty" meal periods must also last at least 30 minutes. However, the analysis does not end there. Employers should also assess the practicality of the "on duty" meal period to ensure that employees are truly being given an opportunity to take an adequate "on duty" meal period and that the on-duty meal period is only being used when the nature of the work prevents the employee from being relieved of all duty.
If you have any questions about the matters discussed in this issue of Compliance Matters, please call your firm contact at (818) 508-3700, or visit us online at www.brgslaw.com.
Richard S. Rosenberg
Katherine A. Hren
James H. Demerjian
Ballard Rosenberg Golper & Savitt, LLP