Accessing Your Personnel File and Payroll Records in California

Employees have the right to inspect and copy payroll and personnel records in California.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

Under California law, employees have the right to inspect and copy certain documents in their personnel files. In addition, employees are entitled to inspect and copy their payroll records. Employees also have the right to receive copies of any employment documents they have signed. Former employees have the same rights.

Right to Inspect Personnel Files

California gives employees and former employees the right to inspect any personnel records relating to their performance or to any grievance concerning them. While California employees have broad rights to view documents relating to their employment, there are a few exceptions.

Employers need not provide letters of reference, records of any criminal investigation involving the employee, records that were obtained prior to the employee's employment, or certain records made by an examination committee or in connection with a promotional exam. Employers may also strike out the names of any non-supervisory employees that appear in your personnel file documents.

Employers must keep these records for at least three years after an employee is terminated or otherwise separates from the employer. Employers who fail to comply with an employee's request to inspect his or her personnel records are subject to a $750 penalty.

How to Request Your Records

Employees must request an inspection in writing. Although employers are required to provide a form for making this request, employees don't have to use the employer's form (as long as the request is in writing). Employers must make the records available within a reasonable time, not to exceed 30 days. Employees may also request copies of the records, but will have to pay for the cost of copying. The representative of an employee or former employee may also make the request.

Where Employees May View Records

Current employees are entitled to view their records at their worksites or at another place agreeable to both employee and employer. However, employers are not required to allow employees to view their records during their regular work hours.

Former employees may view their records at the location where the employer stores the records or at another place agreeable to both employee and employer. If the employee was terminated for violating a law or workplace policy relating to harassment or workplace violence, the employer may comply by mailing the records to the former employee or by making them available somewhere other than the workplace, as long as it's a reasonable distance from the former employee's home.

A former employee may also ask the employer to copy and mail the records, but will be responsible for copying and postage costs. Employers are required to respond to only one request from a former employee per year.

No Inspection Right During Litigation

Employers need not provide personnel records to a former or current employee who has filed a lawsuit against the employer based on an employment matter. The right to inspect is suspended while the lawsuit is pending.

Right to Inspect Payroll Records

Employees in California have the right to inspect and copy their payroll records, as well. Employers are required to provide California employees with certain payroll information when they receive their paychecks, either in the form of a separate document or a paycheck stub or voucher, including how many hours the employee worked, the rate of pay for each hour, deductions from pay, gross wages, and net wages.

Employers who fail to provide the required payroll information are subject to a $50 penalty for the first violation, and $100 for each subsequent violation, up to a maximum penalty of $4,000.

Employers must make payroll records available for inspection and copying at an employee's request. Employees may make this request orally or in writing. Once an employee makes the request, the employer has 21 days to provide the records.

Right to Copies of Signed Documents

California law gives employees the separate right to request and receive a copy of any documents they have signed relating to their jobs. For example, employees may request copies of employment contracts, handbook acknowledgment forms, nondisclosure agreements, at-will agreements, and any other employment documents bearing their signatures.

The law doesn't specify how quickly employers must comply with employee requests. However, many employment-related documents that employees are asked to sign are put in their personnel files and should be covered by a personnel file request.

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