California law requires most employers to give workers a 30-minute meal break during which they are “relieved of all duty.” In some jobs, such as when caring for the disabled, workers can be required to be “on duty” while they eat. But that doesn’t mean these employees get less than a full half hour for their meals.

While that might seem like just common sense, one employer came to the opposite conclusion, and argued its case all the way to the Court of Appeal (L’Chaim House v. Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.)

The company operates two 24-hour residential care homes in San Rafael, serving seniors. In 2016 the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement cited it for failing to provide the required 30-minute meal breaks, and ordered it to pay $89,000 in premium-pay and penalties.

The company sued the agency in Sonoma County Superior Court, arguing that the agency had abused its discretion and that a provision of the state Labor Code allowed L’Chaim to require its employees to work on-duty meal periods that were less than 30 minutes long.

The relevant section of the code says “No employer shall employ any person for a work period of more than five (5) hours without a meal period of not less than 30 minutes.” The employee must be relieved of all duty during the meal period; if not, the employee is considered to be “on duty,” and the 30 minutes must be counted as time worked.

There are some exceptions. If the shift is no more than six hours, the employer and employee can agree to waive the meal break by mutual agreement.

The code also recognizes that some employees cannot be relieved of all duties during the meal period, including those working at 24-hour residential care facilities for the elderly, such as L’Chaim’s. The code acknowledges that conditions may preclude giving these workers off-duty meal periods. Employees may have to help residents eat while having their own meal at the same table, or an employee may be the only one on duty and he or she must be prepared to respond to a resident’s needs even during meal breaks.

However, the appellate court said, L’Chaim misinterpreted the rule. The company argued that if an employee had to do some work during a meal break that was less than 30 minutes long, that did not count as on-duty time.

“We do not follow this reasoning,” the appellate justices said.

“If an employee is entitled to an off-duty meal period of 30 minutes, yet work obligations intrude on a portion of that time, the off-duty period is converted to an on-duty period — no matter how small the portion of the period that work intruded upon — and the employee is paid for the entire period. There is no suggestion that once work interrupts an employee’s meal period, the period simply ends even if 30 minutes have not yet passed.”

It agreed with the trial court’s conclusion that even if L’Chaim’s employees were not entitled to “an uninterrupted meal period,” they had to be given at least get half an hour of “limited duty enabling them to eat their meal in relative peace.”

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s ruling against the company, and ordered L’Chaim to pay the agency’s costs.

By Lynda I. Chung