Lawsuit for Unpaid Wages in California

If your employer has violated California wage and hour laws, you may be able to recover unpaid wages by filing a wage and hour lawsuit.

Below, our California wage and hour lawyers discuss the following frequently asked questions about lawsuits for unpaid wages for California employees:

Unpaid
In California, an employer who does not pay their employees for work performed may owe the employee money for unpaid wages.

If you have further questions after reading this article, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

1. Does my employer owe me money for unpaid wages?

The California Labor Code provides for a minimum wage and mandatory overtime for work over a certain number of hours for non-exempt employees in California. An employer who does not pay their employees for work performed may owe the employee money for unpaid wages.1

Minimum Wage

It is against the law for California employers to pay employees less than the minimum wage. If your employer violates California's minimum wage laws, you can recover the money owed in a wage/hour lawsuit or a class action lawsuit.2

In 2017, the statewide minimum wage in California is $10.50 per hour (or $10 per hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees). However, many cities and counties in California have a minimum wage that is higher than the state minimum. If you work in a city or county with a higher minimum wage, your employer must pay the higher local minimum wage.3

The California minimum wage will increase every year between 2017 and 2023, based on the following schedule:4

Year

California Minimum Wage for Employers with 26 or more employees

California Minimum Wage for Employers with 25 or fewer employees

2017

$10.50/hour

$10.00/hour

2018

$11.00/hour

$10.50/hour

2019

$12.00/hour

$11.00/hour

2020

$13.00/hour

$12.00/hour

2021

$14.00/hour

$13.00/hour

2022

$15.00/hour

$14.00/hour

2023

$16.00/hour

$15.00/hour

Overtime

Under California overtime law, employers are required to pay non-exempt employees overtime for work over the maximum number of hours.5

Non-exempt employees who do not have an alternative workweek schedule are entitled to overtime pay if they work:

  • more than eight (8) hours in a single workday;
  • more than forty (40) hours in a single workweek; or
  • more than six (6) days in a single workweek.6

Employees are entitled to minimum overtime pay at one and one-half (1 ½) times their regular hourly rate of pay.

In addition, work in excess of twelve (12) hours in a single workday, or in excess of eight (8) hours on the seventh day of a workweek is paid at double the regular hourly rate of pay.7

Even if the employer does not require overtime work, employers may owe employees overtime pay as long as the employer permitted the employee to perform the extra work.8

Meal and Rest Breaks

Non-exempt employees are entitled to meal breaks and rest breaks. Under California wage and hour law, employees must receive a thirty (30) minute meal break if they work more than five (5) hours in a day. Employees who work more than ten (10) hours in a day are entitled to a second 30-minute meal break.9

Under California labor law, rest breaks are required for non-exempt employees who work three and a half (3 ½) or more hours in a day. Employees are entitled to a ten (10) minutes of rest period for each four (4) hours, or substantial fraction thereof, worked in a day.10

Breaktime

If an employer does not allow employees to take meal breaks or rest breaks, the employer will owe the employee one hour's wages for each break the employee was denied.11

Off-the-Clock Work

Employers in California may not require employees to work “off the clock" without compensation.12

Off the clock work may include:

  • Pre-shift duties
  • Post-shift work
  • Administrative duties
  • Work performed during a meal break or rest break

Work done off the clock is compensated at the employee's regular hourly wage. If off-the-clock work is performed in excess of the maximum number of work hours, the employee is eligible for overtime pay.

Example: Jeremy applies for a job at a recording studio because he thinks it is a great way to break into the music industry. During the job interview, Jeremy tells the employer that he will work 50 hours a week for $100.00 to show the employer what a great worker Jeremy is. Jeremy gets the job.

After a few months of working, Jeremy feels like his boss is taking advantage of him and making him run personal errands all day. Jeremy tells his boss that he wants to be paid more since he is working so many hours. Jeremy's boss tells Jeremy that since he agreed to work for $100.00 a week, he would only be paid $100.000 a week.

Even if Jeremy agreed to work for $100.00 for a 50-hour workweek, Jeremy is still protected by California wage and hour laws. Jeremy cannot waive California labor laws by agreement with the employer.

If Jeremy files a successful lawsuit against his employer, Jeremy may be owed unpaid wages at the California minimum wage, including damages for unpaid overtime, missed rest breaks, and meal break violations.

2. Which California employees are protected by wage and hour laws?

Employees are generally classified as exempt or non-exempt to California wage and hour laws. Non-exempt workers include “persons employed in professional, technical, clerical, mechanical, and similar occupations whether paid on a time, piece rate, commission, or other basis.”13

Exempt employees may not be subject to wage and hour laws, including overtime and lunch break laws. Exempt employees may include:

  • White-collar workers
  • Independent contractors
  • Employees earning commissions

White-Collar Workers

“White-collar workers” may include persons employed in administrative, managerial, executive, or professional capacities.14

In order to be considered an exempt white-collar worker under California employment law, employees must meet the following requirements:

  1. Spend more than one-half of their work time performing intellectual, managerial or creative work;
  2. Customarily and regularly exercise discretion and independent judgment in performing those job duties; and
  3. Earn a monthly salary equivalent to at least twice the California minimum wage for full-time employment.15

Independent Contractors

Independent contractors in California may also be exempt from California wage and hour laws. In general, an independent contractor in California labor law is someone who performs services for another, under the following requirements:

  1. The person performing the service is promised a specific payment for a specific result; and
  2. The person performing services retains control over how the task was performed.16

However, even if a worker is hired as an independent contractor, the worker will be considered an employee if the parties act like they are in an employer-employee relationship. As an employee, the worker would be protected by California wage/hour, lunch break, and labor laws.17

3. Can I sue my employer for unpaid wages in California?

If your employer has violated California wage and hour laws, you may be able to recover the unpaid wages through filing a wage claim or filing a lawsuit against your employer.18

Lawsuits against employers for California labor law violations may include:

  • Failure to pay overtime compensation
  • Requiring an employee to work off the clock
  • Failure to provide required meal breaks
  • Failure to provide required rest breaks
  • Misclassifying employees as “exempt employees”
  • Misclassifying employees as “independent contractors”
  • Failure to pay the California minimum wage
  • Failure to pay the local city or county minimum wage
  • Late payment of wages

In many cases, an employer may have violated California labor laws against multiple employees. Successful wage and hour class action lawsuits often involve unpaid wages for overtime or missed meal breaks or rest periods.

4. How long do I have to file an unpaid wages lawsuit in California?

In most cases, the statute of limitations for California wage and hour lawsuits is three (3) years from the date of the most recent violation.19

5. How much money will I get for an unpaid wages lawsuit in California?

The damages available in a lawsuit for unpaid wages will depend on the type of labor code violation.

In a lawsuit for unpaid wages related to overtime or wages under the minimum wage, you may be able to collect the amount of unpaid wages. In addition, you may be able to recover interest on the unpaid wages and reasonable attorney's fees and court costs.20

If your employer failed to provide mandatory meal breaks or rest breaks, you may be eligible for one hour's wages for each break you did not receive.21

If your employer's violation of California labor laws was not due to a good faith error, you may be eligible for double damages. Liquidated damages include an amount equal to the unpaid wages plus interest.22

6. Can my boss fire me for filing an unpaid wages lawsuit?

California workers cannot be retaliated against for exercising their rights under California wage and hour laws.23

An employer cannot take retaliatory action, including termination, against an employee for citing wage and hour violations or filing an unpaid wages lawsuit. Firing an employee for filing an unpaid wage claim is considered "wrongful termination".

If an employer retaliates against an employee for bringing a wage/hour lawsuit, the employee may have an additional cause of action against the employer.

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For questions about California wage and hour laws, unpaid wages, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our skilled California labor and employment attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

We have local employment law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.


Legal References:

  1. Labor Code 1194 LC -- Action to recover minimum wage, overtime compensation, interest, attorney's fees, and costs by employee. ("(a) Notwithstanding any agreement to work for a lesser wage, any employee receiving less than the legal minimum wage or the legal overtime compensation applicable to the employee is entitled to recover in a civil action the unpaid balance of the full amount of this minimum wage or overtime compensation, including interest thereon, reasonable attorney's fees, and costs of suit. (b) The amendments made to this section by Chapter 825 of the Statutes of 1991 shall apply only to civil actions commenced on or after January 1, 1992.")
  2. Labor Code 1197 LC -- Payment of lower wage than minimum wage. ("The minimum wage for employees fixed by the commission or by any applicable state or local law, is the minimum wage to be paid to employees, and the payment of a lower wage than the minimum so fixed is unlawful. This section does not change the applicability of local minimum wage laws to any entity.")
  3. See California Department of Industrial Relations, Minimum Wage.
  4. Labor Code 1182.12 LC -- Minimum wage; scheduled increases; adjusted minimum wage; temporary suspension of increases.
  5. Labor Code 510 LC -- Day's work; overtime; commuting time. ("(a) Eight hours of labor constitutes a day's work. Any work in excess of eight hours in one workday and any work in excess of 40 hours in any one workweek and the first eight hours worked on the seventh day of work in any one workweek shall be compensated at the rate of no less than one and one-half times the regular rate of pay for an employee. Any work in excess of 12 hours in one day shall be compensated at the rate of no less than twice the regular rate of pay for an employee. In addition, any work in excess of eight hours on any seventh day of a workweek shall be compensated at the rate of no less than twice the regular rate of pay of an employee. Nothing in this section requires an employer to combine more than one rate of overtime compensation in order to calculate the amount to be paid to an employee for any hour of overtime work. The requirements of this section do not apply to the payment of overtime compensation to an employee working pursuant to any of the following: (1) An alternative workweek schedule adopted pursuant to Section 511. (2) An alternative workweek schedule adopted pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement pursuant to Section 514. (3) An alternative workweek schedule to which this chapter is inapplicable pursuant to Section 554.")
  6. Same.
  7. Same.
  8. Morillion v. Royal Packing Co. (2000) 22 Cal.4th 575, 584–85. ("Along with other amici curiae, the California Labor Commissioner notes that “the time the employee is suffered or permitted to work, whether or not required to do so” can be interpreted as time an employee is working but is not subject to an employer's control. This time can include work such as unauthorized overtime, which the employer has not requested or required. “Work not requested but suffered or permitted is work time. For example, an employee may voluntarily continue to work at the end of the shift.... The employer knows or has reason to believe that he is continuing to work and the time is working time. Citations.” (29 C.F.R. § 785.11 (1998).) “In all such cases it is the duty of the management to exercise its control and see that the work is not performed if it does not want it to be performed.” (29 C.F.R. § 785.13 (1998).) ")
  9. Labor Code 512 LC -- Meal periods; requirements; order permitting meal period after six hours of work; exceptions; remedies under collective bargaining agreement. ("(a) An employer may not employ an employee for a work period of more than five hours per day without providing the employee with a meal period of not less than 30 minutes, except that if the total work period per day of the employee is no more than six hours, the meal period may be waived by mutual consent of both the employer and employee. An employer may not employ an employee for a work period of more than 10 hours per day without providing the employee with a second meal period of not less than 30 minutes, except that if the total hours worked is no more than 12 hours, the second meal period may be waived by mutual consent of the employer and the employee only if the first meal period was not waived.")
  10. 8 California Code of Regulations ("C.C.R") 11040. ("12. Rest Periods (A) Every employer shall authorize and permit all employees to take rest periods, which insofar as practicable shall be in the middle of each work period. The authorized rest period time shall be based on the total hours worked daily at the rate of ten (10) minutes net rest time per four (4) hours or major fraction thereof. However, a rest period need not be authorized for employees whose total daily work time is less than three and one-half (3 1/2) hours. Authorized rest period time shall be counted as hours worked for which there shall be no deduction from wages.")
  11. 8 C.C.R 11040. ("11 . . . (B) If an employer fails to provide an employee a meal period in accordance with the applicable provisions of this order, the employer shall pay the employee one (1) hour of pay at the employee's regular rate of compensation for each workday that the meal period is not provided. . . . 12 . . . (B) If an employer fails to provide an employee a rest period in accordance with the applicable provisions of this order, the employer shall pay the employee one (1) hour of pay at the employee's regular rate of compensation for each workday that the rest period is not provided.")
  12. Adoma v. University of Phoenix, Inc. (E.D. Cal. 2010) 270 F.R.D. 543, 548. ("California law requires that an employer pay for all hours that it “engages, suffers, or permits” an employee to work.")
  13. 8 C.C.R 11040 contains provisions on meal and rest periods. ("1. Applicability of Order This order shall apply to all persons employed in professional, technical, clerical, mechanical, and similar occupations whether paid on a time, piece rate, commission, or other basis, except that: (A) Provisions of sections 3 through 12 shall not apply to persons employed in administrative, executive, or professional capacities.")
  14. Same.
  15. Labor Code 515 LC -- Exemptions from meal and rest break requirements. (“(a) The Industrial Welfare Commission may establish exemptions from the requirement that an overtime rate of compensation be paid pursuant to Sections 510 and 511 for executive, administrative, and professional employees, if the employee is primarily engaged in the duties that meet the test of the exemption, customarily and regularly exercises discretion and independent judgment in performing those duties, and earns a monthly salary equivalent to no less than two times the state minimum wage for full-time employment.”)
  16. Labor Code 3353 LC -- Independent contractor. ("“Independent contractor” means any person who renders service for a specified recompense for a specified result, under the control of his principal as to the result of his work only and not as to the means by which such result is accomplished.")
  17. See Yellow Cab Cooperative, Inc. v. Workers' Comp. Appeals Bd. (1991) 226 Cal.App.3d 1288, 1297. ("Even in the common law setting, a formal agreement characterizing the relationship as independent contractorship “will be ignored if the parties, by their actual conduct, act like 'employer-employee.'”)
  18. Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc.(2007) 40 Cal.4th 1094, 1117. (“An employee need not administratively exhaust his claim before filing a civil action.”)
  19. Code of Civil Procedure 338 CCP -- Statutes of limitations for wage/hour lawsuits. ("Within three years: (a) An action upon a liability created by statute, other than a penalty or forfeiture.")
  20. Labor Code 1194 LC -- Action to recover minimum wage, overtime compensation, interest, attorney's fees, and costs by employee. ("(a) Notwithstanding any agreement to work for a lesser wage, any employee receiving less than the legal minimum wage or the legal overtime compensation applicable to the employee is entitled to recover in a civil action the unpaid balance of the full amount of this minimum wage or overtime compensation, including interest thereon, reasonable attorney's fees, and costs of suit. (b) The amendments made to this section by Chapter 825 of the Statutes of 1991 shall apply only to civil actions commenced on or after January 1, 1992.")
  21. 8 C.C.R 11040. ("11 . . . (B) If an employer fails to provide an employee a meal period in accordance with the applicable provisions of this order, the employer shall pay the employee one (1) hour of pay at the employee's regular rate of compensation for each workday that the meal period is not provided. . . . 12 . . . (B) If an employer fails to provide an employee a rest period in accordance with the applicable provisions of this order, the employer shall pay the employee one (1) hour of pay at the employee's regular rate of compensation for each workday that the rest period is not provided.")
  22. Labor Code 1194.2 -- Liquidated damages in wage/hour suits. ("(a) In any action under Section 98, 1193.6, 1194, or 1197.1 to recover wages because of the payment of a wage less than the minimum wage fixed by an order of the commission or by statute, an employee shall be entitled to recover liquidated damages in an amount equal to the wages unlawfully unpaid and interest thereon. Nothing in this subdivision shall be construed to authorize the recovery of liquidated damages for failure to pay overtime compensation. A suit may be filed for liquidated damages at any time before the expiration of the statute of limitations on an action for wages from which the liquidated damages arise. (b) Notwithstanding subdivision (a), if the employer demonstrates to the satisfaction of the court or the Labor Commissioner that the act or omission giving rise to the action was in good faith and that the employer had reasonable grounds for believing that the act or omission was not a violation of any provision of the Labor Code relating to minimum wage, or an order of the commission, the court or the Labor Commissioner may, as a matter of discretion, refuse to award liquidated damages or award any amount of liquidated damages not exceeding the amount specified in subdivision (a). (c) This section applies only to civil actions commenced on or after January 1, 1992.")
  23. Labor Code 98.6 LC -- Discharge or discrimination, retaliation, or adverse action against employee or applicant for conduct delineated in this chapter or because employee or applicant has filed complaint or claim, instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or relating to his or her rights or testified relating to the same on behalf of that person or another whistleblower protection for reporting wage/hour or labor law violations.

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