Common Wage Violations in California

If you work in California, you are protected by several wage and hour laws.

California has some of the strongest employee protections in the country when it comes to wage and hour issues. Among other things, California employees have the right to meal and rest breaks, overtime after eight hours of work in a day, and a minimum wage that’s higher than the federal standard. Below, we explain some of the most common ways that employers violate these laws – and what to do if you believe your wage and hour rights have been violated. (To learn more about other California employment laws, visit our California Employment Law page.)

Minimum Wage Violations

Employees are entitled to be paid the highest applicable minimum wage where they work, whether that's the federal, state, or local rate. California's minimum wage is significantly higher than the federal rate of $7.25. Some cities, including San Francisco, have even higher minimum wage rates.

Employers violate minimum wage rules by:

  • paying employees the federal minimum wage rather than the higher state amount (or paying employees the state wage rather than a higher city wage)
  • paying employees a “salary” that averages out to less than the minimum wage per hour, or
  • failing to pay employees for all hours worked by, for example, requiring employees to work “off the clock” or work through their lunch breaks.

Violations for Tipped Employees

Under federal law, employers can pay a lower minimum wage to tipped employees (called taking a “tip credit”), as long as the employees make enough in tips to bring their total hourly earnings up to at least the applicable minimum wage. If employees don’t earn enough, their employers must make up the difference.

However, unlike several other states, California does not allow employers to take a tip credit. Instead, employers must pay tipped employees the full state or local minimum wage in addition to their tips. Employers who take tip credits are violating California law.

Other common violations involving tips under California law include deducting a portion of an employee’s tips to pay mandatory credit card processing fees and requiring employees to share their tips with managers. (For more information, see California Laws for Tipped Employees.)

Overtime Violations

Federal law requires overtime pay only if employees work more than 40 hours a week. California law imposes this same requirement. In addition, California employees are entitled to earn regular overtime (time and a half, or 50% on top of their regular hourly rate) if they work more than eight hours in a day. The same rate applies for the first eight hours of work on a seventh consecutive workday. California law provides double time to employees (twice their regular hourly rate) if they work more than 12 hours in a workday or more than eight hours on a seventh consecutive workday.

California employers violate state overtime laws simply by not paying daily overtime as required. Some employers also break the law by paying time-and-a-half when they should be paying double time (for example, once an employee works more than 12 hours).

Other common overtime violations include:

  • Misclassifying employees. Although certain categories of employees are not entitled to earn overtime, the exemption categories are quite narrow. Employers often violate the law by claiming that employees fit into these categories when they do not. (For more information on exemption categories, including the white-collar exemptions, see our Overtime page.)
  • Failing to count all hours worked. Employers often break the law by requiring employees to work off the clock, work through lunch, or spend uncompensated time doing work-related tasks, such as putting on safety gear.

Meal and Rest Break Violations

Although federal law does not require meal or rest breaks, California law does. In California, employers must give employees a 30-minute unpaid meal break after they work five hours; a second meal break is required after employees work ten hours. In addition, California employees are entitled to a paid, ten-minute rest break for every four hours (or major fraction of four hours) they work.

Employers violate these rules by failing to provide the required breaks at all, requiring employees to work during their breaks, or not providing a second meal break for employees who work overtime.

Misclassifying Employees as Independent Contractors

Wage and hour laws do not protect independent contractors. Partly for this reason, some employers misclassify their workers as independent contractors in order to avoid complying with minimum wage, overtime, meal and rest break, and other wage and hour laws.

In general, independent contractors are individuals who are in business for themselves. They decide how much to charge for their work, how much time to spend on it, and how to get it done. They typically work for several clients, provide their own office space and materials, charge on a project basis, and are free to accept or reject work. Employees, on the other hand, typically receive a salary or hourly wage, work at the employer’s offices, receive training and supervision, and are subject to much more control by the employer. (For more information, see Are You an Employee or an Independent Contractor under California law?)

What to Do If Your Rights Are Violated

If you believe your employer has violated your rights under California’s wage laws, you should talk to an experienced California wage and hour lawyer right away. A lawyer can review the facts and tell you whether you have a strong claim against your employer. A lawyer can advise you about the best way to assert your rights, such as writing your employer a “demand letter” asking it to pay you what you are owed, filing a wage claim with the California Labor Commissioner, or filing a lawsuit. (Learn more about hiring a wage and hour lawyer.)

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