How to File a Wage Claim in California

Learn how, when, and where to file a claim for unpaid wages in California.

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law

Has your California employer failed to pay you minimum wage or overtime, refused to provide you with meal or rest breaks, or violated other wage and hour laws? If so, you can file a wage claim with the California Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE).

This article explains how to file a wage claim, including what forms to use, what documents to attach, and the time limits for filing your claim.

What Types of Claims Can I File?

You can file a claim if your employer has violated any federal or state law regarding your work hours or wages. Because California law is more generous to employees than federal law in most respects, most claims will be based on state law. This includes, among other things:

  • minimum wage violations
  • overtime violations
  • meal and rest break violations
  • unpaid tips or commissions
  • unpaid vacation
  • unauthorized deductions, and
  • final paycheck violations.

For more on each type of wage violation, see our article on common wage violations in California.

How Do I File a Claim?

To file your claim, you must complete an Initial Report or Claim (DLSE Form 1) and file it with the Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), a division of the California Department of Industrial Relations. The form asks you to provide information about you, your employer, your regular work schedule, and what wages or penalties you are claiming. (For line-by-line instructions on what information to provide, check out the DLSE's Guide to Completing DLSE Form 1.)

Depending on what type of wages or penalties you are claiming, you may also need to fill out the following supplemental forms:

If you are claiming that your employer retaliated against you for seeking unpaid wages or for filing a wage claim, you must fill out DLSE Form RCI-1.

You must file these forms either by mail or in person at your local DLSE's office; for contact information, select your city from the list at the DLSE Wage Claim Office Locator page.

What Documents Should I Include?

While you don't need to attach any documents to your claim, the DLSE asks for the following records to better evaluate how much you are owed:

  • Time records: copies of any records you kept showing how many hours you worked, such as calendar entries or notes in a journal.
  • Paystubs: copies of any paystubs you received for the time period during which you are claiming unpaid wages.
  • Bounced checks: copies of any checks from your employer that bounced back due to insufficient funds.
  • Notice to Employee: a copy of the "Notice to Employee" that your employer was required to give you at the time of hire, which includes information about your employer, its legal name and address, and your agreed-upon hourly rate.

The DLSE will also ask your employer for the above documents, so don't worry if you don't have anything to attach to your claim. If you have an employment contract, or other documents, showing your employer's promise to pay you at a certain rate, you should attach that as well.

What Are the Time Limits for Filing a Claim?

For most wage violations—including minimum wage, overtime, and meal and rest break violations—you must file your claim within three years of the violation. If your employer's wage violations were ongoing, the DLSE will look back three years from the date you filed your claim.

If your wage claim is based on your employer's oral promises to pay you more than minimum wage, you have only two years to file your claim. If your claim is based on a written contract with your employer, you have four years to file your claim.

In any event, it's best to file your wage claim as soon as possible. That way, you'll be more likely to have access to the documents and witnesses that can support your claim.

How Much Can I Get for My Wage Claim?

If your employer failed to pay you at least the minimum wage, you are entitled to the difference between that and what you were actually paid, for each hour that you worked. For example, the minimum wage for small employers increased from $11 to $12 on January 1, 2020. If your employer continued to pay you $11 an hour for any work you performed in 2020, you are entitled to an extra $1 for every hour worked. (For more information, see What's Your Unpaid Wage Claim Worth in California?)

If your employer failed to pay you overtime, you can receive an extra 50% of your regular wages for each overtime hour worked. And, you are entitled to payment for any business expenses your employer failed to reimburse you for, any unauthorized deductions your employer made from your paycheck, and any tips or commissions that your employer withheld.

California law also allows employees to collect a variety of penalties from the employer for certain wage violations—including failure to provide meal and rest breaks, failure to provide proper paystubs, and failure to provide a final paycheck on time. To learn more, see our article about available penalties for wage claims in California.

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