It is acceptable to offer meal breaks earlier in the work shift.

The issue at hand is that one of our employees consistently takes their meal break after only two hours of work during their eight-hour shift. While we do not have a problem with this, we are concerned that it may be a violation of the law due to the early timing of the break.

In California, there are clear guidelines regarding an employer’s responsibilities for meal breaks. According to Labor Code Section 512, an employer must provide a meal break of at least 30 minutes for any employee working a shift of more than five hours.

This law was further clarified in the case of Brinker Restaurant Corporation v. The Superior Court of San Diego County in 2012. The California Supreme Court outlined an employer’s duties regarding meal breaks, including the requirement to provide a reasonable opportunity for employees to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, during which the employer must relinquish all control and the employee must be relieved of all duties.

The timing of meal breaks is also specified in Section 512, stating that the first meal break must be taken no later than the end of an employee’s fifth hour of work. This can sometimes cause confusion, as the first hour of work is considered to be between zero and 60 minutes, and the second hour begins after that. Therefore, for an employee working an eight-hour shift, their meal break must begin before they have completed five hours of work.

To ensure compliance with this requirement, the California Chamber of Commerce recommends that employees clock out for their meal break no later than 4 hours and 59 minutes into their shift. For example, if an employee starts working at 8 a.m., their first meal break should begin no later than 12:59 p.m.

This is the only timing requirement for meal breaks during an eight-hour shift. There are no other laws, regulations, or interpretations that impose additional timing requirements. The Brinker decision confirmed that the timing of meal breaks is strict only to the extent that they must be taken no later than the end of an employee’s fifth hour of work. It is not permissible for an employee to take their meal break too early. Therefore, if an employee working an eight-hour shift requests to take their meal break after completing five hours of work, they are within their rights to do so. 

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