Wage theft in California occurs when employers intentionally fail to pay their employees or independent contractors.
You can try recovering your back wages through the Labor Commissioner or by filing a lawsuit. Because wage theft is also a criminal offense in California, you can also report your employer to the police.
With the passage of Assembly Bill 1003 by state lawmakers in 2021, wage theft of more than $950 is now prosecuted as grand theft. The new law reads:
Penal Code 487m. (a) Notwithstanding Sections 215 and 216 of the Labor Code, the intentional theft of wages in an amount greater than nine hundred fifty dollars ($950) from any one employee, or two thousand three hundred fifty dollars ($2,350) in the aggregate from two or more employees, by an employer in any consecutive 12-month period may be punished as grand theft.
(b) For purposes of this section, “theft of wages” is the intentional deprivation of wages, as defined in Section 200 of the Labor Code, gratuities, as defined in Section 350 of the Labor Code, benefits, or other compensation, by unlawful means, with the knowledge that the wages, gratuities, benefits, or other compensation is due to the employee under the law.
(c) For purposes of this section, “employee” includes an independent contractor and “employer” includes the hiring entity of an independent contractor.
(d) Wages, gratuities, benefits, or other compensation that are the subject of a prosecution under this section may be recovered as restitution in accordance with Sections 1202.4 and 1203.1. This section does not prohibit the employee or the Labor Commissioner from commencing a civil action to seek remedies provided for under the Labor Code for acts prosecuted under this section.
(e) This section does not constitute a change in, and does not expand or limit the scope of conduct prohibited by, Section 487.
In this article, our California employment law attorneys will discuss:
- 1. What is wage theft?
- 2. How can I get my money?
- 3. Is wage theft a crime?
- 4. Should I report my employer to the police?
- 5. Can I be fired for reporting wage theft?
1. What is wage theft?
Wage theft is when your employer intentionally fails to pay you what you are owed. This includes withholding not only wages and salaries but also your:
- commissions, and
Examples of intentional wage theft against non-exempt employees are the failure to provide:
- overtime pay,
- minimum wages,
- waiting time penalties after a late final paycheck, and/or
- premium pay for missed rest and meal breaks.
Other examples of wage theft include when your employer:
- pays you nothing,
- withholds your tips,
- pays you with checks that bounce,
- fails to pay your final paycheck on time,
- fails to pay promised hazard pay during the pandemic,
- fails to pay required sick leave, and/or
- requires you to record fewer hours than you in fact work (working “off the clock”)
You can seek remedies for wage theft no matter whether you are
- a high-earning or low-wage worker, or
- an employee or independent contractor.
As discussed below, wage theft is both a crime and grounds to bring a civil lawsuit.1
2. How can I get my money?
Most victims of wage theft choose to file a wage claim with the California Labor Commissioner. You can complete the entire process online relatively quickly. You will have to provide the date(s) the theft occurred and the amount you are owed.
If the Labor Commissioner agrees that you are a wage theft victim, it will demand that your employer finally pay you. If your employer still refuses, the Labor Commissioner will go to court on your behalf.
Note that there is a statute of limitations for filing wage complaints:
Type of Wage Theft in California
Time Limit for Filing Wage Claim
|Bounced checks||1 year|
|Breaking an oral promise to pay above minimum wage||2 years|
|Failure to pay minimum wage, overtime, or reimbursements |
Failure to provide rest breaks, meal breaks, or sick leave
Making illegal deductions
|Breaking a written contract||4 years2|
If you do not wish to involve the Labor Commissioner, you can pursue your lost wages by filing a wage and hour lawsuit instead. However the court system is very complicated, so it is recommended you hire an attorney to represent you.
Whether you file a wage complaint or bring a lawsuit, you are entitled to liquidated damages. This is double the back pay you are owed, plus interest. If you bring a lawsuit, the court can also award you:
- attorney’s fees, and
- court costs.3
Your attorney can help you determine how soon you must bring the lawsuit based on the facts of your case.
(Note that you may also have grounds to bring a PAGA lawsuit as well, which allows you to recover civil penalties separate and apart from your back pay.)
The criminal justice system
Since wage theft is a crime, you also have the option of reporting your employer to the police. Then if your employer is charged and convicted, the judge would order your employer to pay you your back wages as restitution (unless you have already recovered your back pay through the Labor Commissioner or a lawsuit).
The statute of limitations for a district attorney to prosecute employers for wage theft is:
- one year after the theft if you are owed $950 or less;
- three years after the theft if you are owed more than $950.
So if you wait too long to inform the police, the D.A. may be time-barred from bringing charges.
Note that if you report your employer to the police, you can still file a complaint with the Labor Commissioner or pursue a lawsuit. Criminal cases are entirely separate from civil actions.4
3. Is wage theft a crime?
Yes. Intentionally not paying workers in California is prosecuted as grand theft if the employer withheld more than:
- $950 from you in a 12-month period, or
- $2,350 from you and at least one other worker in a 12-month period.
Grand theft is a wobbler, meaning that it can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. Misdemeanor grand theft carries:
- up to 364 days in county jail and/or $1,000 in fines to the court, and
- restitution to you for the back wages you are owed.
Felony grand theft carries:
- felony probation with up to 364 days of county jail time, or
- a county jail sentence of 16 months, 2 years or 3 years.
In addition, your employer may have to pay:
- up to $10,000 in fines to the court, and
- restitution to you for the back wages you are owed.5
Meanwhile, employers who withhold $950 or less in back wages face misdemeanor charges. Penalties include:
- up to 6 months in county jail and/or $1,000 in fines, and
- restitution to you for the back wages you are owed.6
4. Should I report my employer to the police?
It is advised you speak with a California employment lawyer to discuss the pros and cons of reporting your employer to the police for wage theft.
Some advantages of involving the police are:
- Reporting an injustice to the police may make you feel better;
- Being investigated or prosecuted could prompt your employer to pay you right away in an effort to get the charges dropped;
- If your employer is convicted, you may feel validated.
Some disadvantages of involving the police are:
- Criminal cases can take several weeks, months, or longer;
- You may be subjected to interviews by police, and you may have to testify if the case goes to trial;
- If your employer is jailed and fined, that could potentially delay your being able to receive restitution.
In most wage theft cases, you can recover your back wages through the Labor Commissioner or a lawsuit without involving the police at all.
If you do decide to report your employer to law enforcement, a private attorney can help you fill out the police report in a way that will grab the officers’ attention.
5. Can I be fired for reporting wage theft?
California law prohibits your employer from retaliating against you for reporting wage theft. Examples of retaliation include:
- firing you (wrongful termination);
- demoting you;
- denying you a promotion;
- reducing your pay or work hours; and/or
- discriminating against you.
If you have been retaliated against by your employer, you can submit a complaint with the Labor Commissioner or file a lawsuit. The statute of limitations is one year from the retaliatory act.
If you win your case, you could be reinstated to your old job (if you were fired or demoted) and be compensated for any unpaid wages.7
Learn more about retaliation protections in California.
For additional help…
Are you a wage theft victim? Contact our California labor law firm for legal advice. We practice throughout the state, including Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Diego.
- California Labor Code sections 215 & 216. California Penal Code 487m PC. Examples of Wage Theft, California Department of Industrial Relations (dir.ca.gov). See also Alejandro Lazo, Jeanne Kuang, Lil Kalish and Erica Yee, When Employer Steal Wages from Workers, CalMatters (July 26, 2022).
- How to File a Wage Claim, California Department of Industrial Relations. See also the Bureau of Field Enforcement. Note that there is a backlog of wage claim cases.
- See, for example, Espinoza v. Hepta Run, Inc. (Atempa v. Pedrazzani (
- California Penal Code sections 800, 801, & 487m.
- California Penal Code sections 487, 487m, and 17. See also Assembly Bill 1003 (passed by the state legislature in 2001). Emily Hamann, Newsom signs bill raising penalties for wage theft, Sacramento Business Journal (September 28, 2021).
- California Penal Code sections 19.
- California Labor Code 98.6 LC. How to File a Retaliation/Discrimination Complaint, California Department of Industrial Relations.