How to Recover Unpaid Wages in California


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Wage theft is one the most common forms of theft in the United States, with employers cheating billions of dollars from hardworking people every year.

To make matters worse, wage theft might not look like what you expect. In fact, it can take many forms other than just skimming money off your paycheck.

You deserve to be paid what you’re owed money under the law for the work that you perform. Employee protection laws give workers the right to recover the unpaid wages that they rightfully earned. And if you're a California employee, you enjoy some of the most protective laws in the country.

What Are Your California Employee Wage and Hour Rights? 

To qualify for wage protection laws, you must be classified as a “non-exempt employee.” Compared to independent contractors, employees get far more rights under the law.

You qualify as a non-exempt employee in California if you:

  • Work primarily under the control and direction of your employer,
  • The work you perform is within your employer's usual course of business, and
  • You don't otherwise operate an independent trade or business based on the type of work you do for your employer.

For all qualifying California employees, your employer is required by law to:

  • Provide a 30-minute unpaid meal break to be taken during every shift over 5 hours, plus another 30-minute unpaid meal break if your shift goes over 10 hours
  • Allow sick pay and family and medical leave as required under state and federal law
  • Pay you the required minimum wage (including salaried workers), prevailing wage, overtime, and double-time under the law
  • Reimburse you for expenses such as gas mileage and your work cell phone plan
  • Pay you on time – at least once every 15 days on a regular basis, immediately if you get fired, and within 72 hours if you quit
  • Provide unemployment benefits if you’re let go from your position
  • Subsidize your health insurance, social security taxes, and Medicare taxes

You may have more protections and rights depending on the industry you’re in, as California has specific labor laws focused on the computer, entertainment, garment, and restaurant industries.

What Are the Common Forms of Wage Theft in California?

One of the most common types of wage theft happens through employee misclassification when employers misclassify employees as “exempt” or independent contractors.

Unlike employees, independent contractors don't get the same rights and protections. Some businesses try to cut corners by misclassifying employees to save money, cheating workers out of the wages they’ve earned fairly under the law.

Other than misclassification, wage theft can also look like:

  • Failing to pay workers the required minimum or prevailing wage, their earned commissions or bonuses, or hazard pay even if it’s in their contract
  • Failing to update wages after new laws come into effect or the minimum wage is raised
  • Press employees to work off the clock without paying them the overtime rate
  • Making employees work through their legally protected breaks
  • Refusing to pay employees for vacation time they don’t use
  • Failing to cover the required social security and medicare taxes on your paycheck
  • Illegally deducting money from your paycheck for any reason
  • Regularly failing to pay employees their wages on time
  • Failing to reimburse employees for their work-related expenses

If you’re experiencing wage theft you may be intimidated by the idea of bringing it up with your employer, especially if you fear that they will retaliate against you. However, California employee protections are robust – and retaliation is illegal.

Also, if you’re experiencing wage theft by an employer, you may not be the only one. A company's illegal wage practices could affect many of its employees across the board. If so, you may have a class action case against your employer for all of your stolen wages.

How Do You Fight Wage Theft and Recover Your Unpaid Wages?

If your employer fails to pay you the wages you’ve earned under the law, you can file a claim with either the California Labor Commission or another relevant state or federal agency. You can also file a wage and hour lawsuit or class action against your employer.

State and federal agencies have procedures in place to get you paid the wages you are owed under the law. If those procedures fail, a wage theft lawsuit may be your best option.

When you file a civil lawsuit or class action against a company for wage and hour violations, the law works to “make you whole” – i.e., provide you with monetary damages to compensate you for your losses. Many wage and hour lawsuits end in settlements where the employer agrees to pay their employees the true wages they’re owed. In a large class action case, this could be millions of dollars being paid out by the company.

If your employer takes negative action against you for filing a legitimate wage complaint, they can be held accountable under the law for even greater damages. In a case of retaliation, a court may order punitive damages from your employer. These damages are meant to punish companies for especially bad, intentional, or malicious behavior. Depending on the scope and severity of the violations, punitive damages can result in huge settlements or verdicts.

How a California Employment Lawyer Can Help

Whatever course of action you end up taking, an experienced and knowledgeable employment lawyer can help you navigate the process of filing your wage claim or class action lawsuit.

If you've been cheated out of your wages, you deserve to be compensated for the labor you’ve completed. But you're just one employee against a company that might have much greater resources than you. That's where your attorney comes in to help level the playing field.

The passionate and experienced legal team at the Wilshire Law Firm has fought for employees’ rights for years. We don’t back down from a challenge and we know California's labor laws inside and out. Plus, we work on a contingency-fee basis – that means you only pay us after we’ve recovered your wages for you. To find out how we can assist you with your claim, call us now at (800) 522-7274 or fill out our online form for a free consultation.

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