What Can I Do If I Am Owed Pay?
If you have an overtime, minimum wage violation, or other wage and hour claim against your employer, you can complain within your company, file a wage claim (in most states), or file a lawsuit to assert your rights.
If your employer has not paid you the full minimum wage, has not paid you overtime you earned, has not paid you for every hour worked, has required you to work through unpaid breaks, or has illegally kept your tips (among other things), you may have a legal claim for wage theft. Below, we explain the most common wage law violations and provide information on how to enforce your right to be paid fairly, and on time, for all of your work.
Common Wage and Overtime Violations
If your employer hasn’t paid you fully for every hour you have worked, you may have legal claims for violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) or California wage and hour law. Here are some common wage theft claims.
Your employer must pay you at least the highest minimum wage that applies to you, whether federal, state, or local. If you haven’t received at least this much per hour, less any allowed deductions, you may have a claim for unpaid wages.
The minimum wage in California is $10 an hour. Because this is higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25, employees in California must be paid at least $10 an hour.
A handful of local governments in California have passed ordinances establishing a higher minimum wage. If you work in one of these cities or counties, you are entitled to earn the higher local minimum wage amount:
- Berkeley: $11
- Emeryville: $14.44
- Los Angeles: $10
- Los Angeles County: $10
- Mountain View: $11
- Oakland: $12.55
- Palo Alto: $11
- Richmond: $11.52
- San Francisco: $12.25
- San Jose: $10.30
- Santa Clara: $11
- Santa Monica: $10
- Sunnyvale: $10.30
In some localities, the minimum wage is slightly lower for smaller employers and employers who contribute a certain amount to employee benefits. Contact your city or county government office to learn the details of your local minimum wage law.
Wages for Tipped Employees
Some states allow employers to pay a lower minimum wage to employees who earn tips; others don’t. Either way, you must earn at least the full applicable minimum wage. See What Are My Rights to Tips in California? for more information on California law for tipped employees.
You must be paid for every hour you work. Depending on the circumstances, this might include not only time you spend actually doing your job, but also trainings, travel time, time you spend on call, and more.
Unless you are an exempt employee (an employee who is not entitled to earn overtime because of your job duties and salary; see Am I Entitled to Overtime Pay in California?), you must be paid overtime when you work more than 40 hours in a week. If your state has a daily overtime standard, you may be entitled to overtime if you work more than eight hours in one day. The overtime premium is half of your usual hourly rate, so you must be paid at least time and a half for every overtime hour.
Meal and Rest Breaks
Under federal law, you are entitled to be paid for any breaks your employer chooses to provide, if they last for 20 minutes or less. To find out what California requires, see Does My California Employer Have to Give Me Breaks From Work?
California law determines when you are entitled to get your final paycheck. State law (and, in some states, your employer’s policy) also dictates whether your employer must cash out your unused, accrued vacation time when the employment relationship ends.
Steps to Take If Your Employer Owes You Money
If you believe your employer owes you wages, you’ll need to assert your rights. Start by complaining within your company. Check the employee handbook to find out the process for filing an internal complaint (typically, with the human resources department or a manager). Although some employers intentionally violate wage and hour laws, others don’t know what the law requires. If your employer has made a good faith mistake, raising the issue internally may be effective. And it will save you the time and trouble of initiating legal proceedings against your employer.
If your wage complaint isn’t resolved to your satisfaction, you’ll need to take formal steps to get your money. In many states, you can file a wage claim: an administrative complaint with the state wage and hour enforcement agency. If your state has this type of process, it can be a quicker, cheaper, and less complicated alternative to suing your employer. Often, the state agency will hold a hearing, at which you and your employer can present documents and witnesses. After the hearing, an administrative judge will make a decision on your claim. If you hire an attorney to represent you in a wage hearing, you may be able to collect your attorney fees from your employer if you win, too.
If you can’t or don’t file a wage claim, or your state doesn’t have this type of process, you can file a lawsuit against your employer for wage theft. Before you do, you should consult with an experienced wage and hour lawyer, who can tell you how strong your claims are, what they are worth, and whether it makes sense to sue for damages. A lawyer can help you try to negotiate a settlement with your employer, and may also suggest that you band together with other employees to bring a class action or collective action against your employer. In this type of lawsuit, a group of employees who have the same claim (for example, that their employer improperly classified them as exempt and failed to pay them overtime) sue together.
You may also be interested in:
California wage and hour basics, including procedures for seeking unpaid wages and what is due in the final paycheck.
Ways to find a wage and hour attorney in California.