If an employer in the state of California has failed to pay you the minimum wage or the proper overtime wage, has refused to provide rest and/or lunch breaks, or has otherwise violated state or federal wage and hour laws, you can file a wage claim with the state’s Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), and an experienced Fresno employment rights attorney can help. While this is a basic introduction about filing a wage claim in California, employees will need to discuss the particulars of their own claims – and the possibility of legal action – with an experienced employment rights lawyer.
An employee in California may file a wage claim if an employer violates any federal or state law regarding the employee’s hours or wages. Most claims in California are based on state law because California law, in most cases, provides workers in this state with more employment rights than federal law provides. Claims may be filed with the Department of Labor Standards Enforcement regarding any of these matters:
- minimum wage violations
- overtime wage violations
- unpaid commissions or tips
- unpaid vacation pay
- unauthorized deductions
- rest and meal break violations
- final paycheck violations
HOW IS A FORMAL WAGE CLAIM FILED?
To file a formal wage claim with the state, you must fill out an Initial Report or Claim (DLSE Form 1) and submit it to the Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), which is a division of the California Department of Industrial Relations. DLSE Form 1 asks about you, your employer, your work schedule, and the wage violations or other violations you are claiming. Depending on the specifics of your claim, you may also need to complete:
- DLSE Form 55 for irregular work hours
- DLSE Form 155 for unpaid commissions
- DLSE Vacation Pay Schedule for unpaid vacation pay
If your claim is that your employer has retaliated against you because you filed a wage claim or sought unpaid wages, you’ll need to complete DLSE Form RCI-1, and if you have not yet spoken to an employment rights attorney, that’s the time to do it. These forms must be submitted by mail or in person at your local Department of Labor Standards Enforcement office. In central California, let an experienced Fresno employment rights attorney advise you and review the forms or help you complete them to ensure that you have not overlooked anything important.
WHAT DOCUMENTS WILL BE NEEDED?
When you make a wage claim or take an employer to court, you will need documentation that verifies your claim. While you do not need to attach any documents with DLSE Form 1, the Department of Labor Standards Enforcement may ask for the following records, so attach them if you have them. If you have an employment contract or other pertinent documents, attach those as well. You will also need these documents if your case goes to trial, so make copies:
- Paystubs: copies of any paystubs you received during the period for which you are claiming unpaid wages
- Time sheets: if official time sheets or time cards are not available, any written record of the hours you worked
- Bounced checks: copies of any checks from your employer that bounced
- Notice to Employee: a copy of the “Notice to Employee” that employers are required to provide when you are hired, with information about your agreed-upon pay rate
In the state of California, in most cases, you must file a claim within three years for most wage violations including overtime, minimum wage, and rest break violations. However, if a wage claim is based on an employer’s spoken promise to pay an employee more than the minimum wage, the time limit for filing a claim is two years. If a written employment contract that is signed by your employer and is in your possession is the basis of your wage claim, you have four years to file your claim. Do not wait four years. It’s always best to file a wage claim as quickly as reasonably possible. Documents can disappear and memories can fade quickly.
If an employer fails to pay the minimum wage, an employee is entitled to the difference between the minimum wage and the wage actually paid. The minimum wage in California, for instance, rose by a dollar an hour (from $9 to $10 an hour) on January 1, 2016, so if you kept receiving $9 an hour after that date, you would be entitled to another dollar for each hour you have worked in 2016. Likewise, you are entitled to 150 percent of your hourly wage for overtime hours, and you are entitled to reimbursement for any business expenses you have incurred, unauthorized deductions your employer made, and any commissions or tips that have been withheld.
California law also allows employees to receive penalty awards for certain wage violations. If you win a lawsuit or a wage claim filed with the Department of Labor Standards Enforcement, you may be awarded – along with the wages you are owed – penalties (essentially punitive damages) for your employer’s violation of the law. The amount available will hinge on the details of your particular wage claim. The penalties are additional fines designed to punish the employer and prevent similar violations in the future.
WHAT ARE “LIQUIDATED” DAMAGES?
In some cases, employees may be awarded what the law calls “liquidated” damages. Liquidated damages are a set amount intended to compensate you for losses that are difficult to quantify, such as wage violations stretched over a long period of time – or wage violations that clearly happened, but the precise amounts are difficult to document because of lost records or sloppy recordkeeping. The penalties that employees can be awarded after winning a wage claim or a wage lawsuit against a California employer can be substantial.
California wage and hour laws even give employees whose lawsuits prevail the right to collect attorneys’ fees and court costs from the employer. More than any other state, California extends substantial legal protections to workers. Whether the concern is wages and hours, safety, discrimination, or harassment, every employee who works in California has substantial legal rights that will be enforced by the courts. If an employer has violated your rights in California, the law is on your side.