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California Claims for Unpaid Wages

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is a federal law that establishes the minimum rules employers are required to follow across the U.S. However, states can pass laws that provide greater protection than the FLSA, and California has passed multiple laws that provide significantly greater protection than the FLSA. As an employee in California, you have the right to be paid fairly for the work that you perform and to receive all of the pay that you have earned on time. If your employer has failed to pay you everything that you are owed, you have the right to file an unpaid wage claim to recover the wages you are owed and some penalties that are designed to punish employers that violate the state's wage and hour laws.

Common Ways Employers Violate the Wage and Hour Laws

Employers might violate the wage and hour laws in California in multiple ways, including the following:

  • Failing to pay employees at least the required minimum hourly wage
  • Failing to pay employees for all hours worked
  • Failing to pay non-exempt employees the overtime premium
  • Failing to pay for breaks
Violations of the Minimum Wage Laws

While the FLSA has set the federal minimum wage at $7.25 per hour, states that have high minimum wages require employers to pay their employees the higher state minimum wage. Employers with 26 or more employees in California are required to pay a minimum wage of $15 per hour in 2022. Employers with fewer than 26 employees must pay at least $14 per hour. However, many cities in California have also established higher minimum wages than the state's minimum wage, including those in the Bay Area and in Greater Los Angeles.

If you are a non-exempt employee, you are entitled to be paid the highest minimum wage under the laws that cover you. If your employer has not paid you the required minimum wage, you can calculate what you are owed by subtracting what you were paid per hour from what you should have been paid. You can then multiply that amount by the number of hours you worked.

Some states allow employers to pay tipped wages that are lower than the minimum wage as long as the tips they earn make up the difference. California, however, does not allow tip credits. Any tips that an employee earns are not counted towards the minimum wage requirement, and employers cannot take tips from employees who receive them. Even if you work in the service industry, your employer must pay you the highest minimum wage in your area and cannot take any tips that you earn from you under Cal. Lab. Code § 351.

Violations of the Overtime Laws

Employers are required to pay non-exempt employees one-and-one-half times their regular pay rates for any hours worked beyond 40 in a week or eight hours in a day. If you work seven consecutive days, you are also entitled to be paid time-and-one-half for the first eight hours worked on the seventh workday. If you work more than 12 hours during a workday, you are entitled to double-time pay for each hour worked beyond 12 and any hours worked beyond the first eight on a seventh consecutive workday.

Exempt employees are not entitled to overtime pay. However, to meet an exemption, the employee must meet specific definitions for the job duties he or she performs and certain salary requirements. If your employer cannot prove that you meet an exemption, you must be paid overtime for the excess hours you work. Some employers purposely misclassify non-exempt workers as exempt employees to try to evade the overtime requirements. If you have not been paid overtime, you are entitled to seek the difference between what you should have been paid and what you actually received. Even if your employer has misclassified you as exempt, filing a wage and hour claim can allow the court to determine that you have been misclassified and should receive the overtime compensation your employer did not pay you.

Failing to Pay for Breaks

Employees do not have the right to take rest or meal breaks during the workday under federal law. However, California employees are entitled to take a 30-minute unpaid break for meals and a paid, 10-minute break every four hours worked. If your employer fails to allow you to take these breaks or to pay you appropriately for them, you are entitled to seek a penalty.

To determine how much money you are owed for unpaid breaks, you can add up the time you took for unpaid short breaks and the breaks that your employer required you to work through. You can then multiply the unpaid break time by your hourly rate. Breaks that your employer was required to pay you count towards your total hours worked, which means they also count towards your daily or weekly overtime calculation.

Failing to Provide Paid Sick Leave

California employers are required to provide their employees with paid sick leave. You are entitled to one paid hour of sick leave for every 30 hours you work. If your employer doesn't allow you to accrue this type of leave and forces you to take unpaid sick leave, you can file a claim to be paid for the time that you took off from work unpaid due to illness.

What Are the Penalties for Unpaid Wages?

If your employer failed to pay you all of the wages you are owed or failed to pay you in a timely manner, you can pursue penalties in addition to the actual wages you should have received. The available penalties for unpaid wage claims in California include the following:

  • Violations of meal periods - Penalty amounting to one hour of pay for every day in which you missed a meal
  • Violations of rest breaks - One hour of pay for every day you missed rest breaks
  • Minimum wage violations - Liquidated damages equal to the total of your unpaid wages
  • Violations of paystub rules requiring your employer to provide certain types of information about your hours and wages - $50 for the first violation plus $100 for each additional violation up to a total of $4,000 for each affected employee
  • Failing to timely pay you after you separate from a company - Payment of your average daily wage fir every day your employer is late giving you your final paycheck up to a maximum of 30 days
  • Violations of paid sick leave - Administrative penalties that include either three times the amount of paid sick leave or $250, whichever is more up to $4,000; if you were terminated, an additional $50 per day up to $4,000
Filing Wage Claims or Lawsuits

If you have not received everything that you earned from your current or former employer, you can either choose to file an unpaid wage and hour claim with the California Labor Commissioner or a lawsuit in court. Administrative wage claims with the California Labor Commissioner can be filed online here.

You must pay attention to the deadlines for filing. Different deadlines apply based on the type of wage claim you are filing. These deadlines are listed on the Labor Commissioner's website. If you wait too long to file a claim, you might not be able to recover the compensation you deserve.

The various limitation periods include the following:

  • Three years- Minimum wage, overtime, or breaks violations
  • Four years- Violations of contracts
  • Two years - Violations of oral promises to pay more than the minimum wage
  • One year - Violations of laws requiring the provision of access to payroll or personnel records or for bounced checks

If your claim is difficult for you to understand, or you are uncomfortable trying to pursue a claim on your own, you should consider speaking with a wage and hour attorney in California. An attorney can file an administrative claim on your behalf with the Labor Commissioner or file a complaint in court to help you collect the wages you are owed. If you win, your lawyer can also ask the court to order your employer to pay your attorneys' fees.

Employees in California deserve to receive fair payment for every hour they work. When an employer fails to timely pay its employees for all of their hours or violates the wage and hour laws in other ways, the employees are entitled to pursue compensation and penalties. Employers that are found to have violated the state's wage and hour laws must pay any assessed penalties on top of the unpaid wages their employees are owed. If the employees retained attorneys to represent them, the judge can also order the employer to pay the employees' attorneys fees and legal costs instead of the employees having to pay them out of their awards.

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