In California, workers can win a wage claim by timely filing the claim with the Labor Commissioner’s Office, providing documentation of the missing payments, and presenting a strong case at the settlement conference and the wage claim hearing. An experienced California labor and employment law attorney can help workers at each of these steps and significantly improve their odds of success.
How can workers win a wage claim in California?
Workers in California who have been denied wages can recover what they are owed by filing a wage claim. Workers can increase their odds of winning this claim by:
- timely filing the claim with the Labor Commissioner,
- adequately documenting the unpaid wages,
- persuasively showing the lack of payment at the settlement conference, and, if no settlement is reached,
- presenting a strong case for payment at the wage claim hearing.
The best way to succeed at each of these steps is to establish an attorney-client relationship with an employment attorney from a reputable law firm.
When do I have to file the claim with the Labor Commissioner’s Office?
The first step in making a wage claim is to file it with the California Labor Commissioner’s Office in the Department of Industrial Relations. This Office is also known as the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE). Wage claims can be filed on the Department’s website after creating an account. The most important part about filing a wage claim is doing so before the statute of limitations has expired.
The applicable statute of limitations will depend on the type of claim being made.
In the state of California, workers have to file the claim within 1 year if the employer:
- tried to pay wages with a bad check, or
- did not provide the worker payroll or personnel records.
Workers have 2 years to file a claim over an oral promise to pay more than what was required under the local minimum wage law.
Workers have 3 years to file claims that involve wage violations involving California state laws that govern:
- minimum wages,
- overtime pay,
- rest and meal breaks,
- sick leave,
- unpaid reimbursements, or
- wrongful deductions from paychecks.
Workers have 4 years to file claims that allege a violation of a written contract.
Failing to file the claim within the allotted amount of time will mean that the case can be easily dismissed. Even strong wage claims that are filed too late will lose. All that the employer has to do is point to the applicable statute of limitations.
Only wage claims can be filed online with the Department. The online filing portal is not for any of the following claims under California wage and employment law:
- workplace retaliation,
- independent contractor misclassification,
- claims made under the Private Attorney General Act (PAGA),
- discrimination, or
What documentation do I need to prove my unpaid wages?
Timely filing the wage claim is only the first step. Workers also have to provide documentation of the missed payments. This includes:
- enough information to identify the employer or the worker’s manager,
- a record of work hours,
- the DLSE Notice to Employee that is supposed to be provided at the beginning of work,
- when the worker took meal and rest breaks,
- paychecks and paystubs,
- checks that bounced, and
- any employment contracts or wage statements that specify the rate of pay.
Workers should only submit copies of these documents to support their wage claim. They should keep the originals.
The Department of Industrial Relations will have specific worksheets for workers who worked irregular hours or who say they were denied:
California employers are legally required to keep accurate records about their employees.1
How can I make a strong case at the settlement conference?
After the claim is filed, the Labor Commissioner’s Office will set a date and time for a settlement conference. Both the employee and the employer will be notified by mail.
The worker has to be present at this conference. If he or she misses the conference and cannot show good cause for their absence, the case will be dismissed.
At the settlement conference, a deputy labor commissioner will mediate the wage dispute.
Workers can make a strong case at the conference by providing organized and detailed documentation of the unpaid wages. The evidence will usually have to rebut common defenses by the employer, like:
- the employer did pay the wages,
- the worker did not work during the time at issue, or
- the wages were deducted for some other reason.
A strong case at the settlement conference can make it clear that the wages were not paid. This can pressure the employer into paying all of them. If there is any doubt that the wages were not paid, the employer will likely argue against paying them in full.
In many cases, the employer and the worker will reach an agreement at the settlement conference. The employer will pay a specific amount in order to get the worker to drop his or her claim. Settlements that are signed on the Department of Industrial Relations’ forms will be enforced by the Labor Commissioner’s Office.
If no settlement agreement is reached, a wage claim hearing will be scheduled.
Will there be a wage claim hearing?
There will be a wage claim hearing if no agreement is reached at the settlement conference.
The wage claim hearing is similar to a very informal trial. The worker and the employer will testify under oath in a recorded hearing. They will both submit evidence about whether the wages were paid or owed.
Workers can increase their odds of winning at the wage claim hearing by presenting a strong and organized case for payment. This can require:
- oral testimony from witnesses or coworkers who have information that supports the worker’s claim,
- documentation that shows the unpaid wages and that rebuts the employer’s defenses, and
- cross-examining any witnesses brought by the employer.
The hearing officer will issue a decision, called an Order, Decision or Award (ODA), within 15 days. It will be mailed to the employer and the worker. Appeals can be made to the ODA within 15 days of its receipt. If the ODA is appealed, the case moves to the county’s Superior Court.
Do I need a lawyer to make a wage claim?
Workers can pursue a wage claim on their own, without an attorney. However, having a lawyer’s legal advice and representation during the wage claim process can drastically increase your odds of success. Preparing and presenting a strong case can be intimidating. An employment lawyer with experience making these claims will have done it numerous times, already. That experience lets lawyers know what works and what does not. This can significantly increase the likelihood of success.
Some workers are concerned about the attorney fees. However, many employment lawyers work on contingency fees. They only charge fees if they win unpaid wage claims at the settlement conference or the wage claim hearing.
- California Labor Code 226 LAB.