If your employer owes you unpaid wages, you can file a wage claim with the California Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE). The DLSE will hold an administrative hearing and decide whether you’re entitled to payment. This article explains how to prepare for the hearing.
Once you’ve decided to move forward with a wage claim, you should gather any documents you have showing that you weren’t paid properly. Depending on what wages you are claiming, the following documents might be helpful:
You should also request your personnel file and payroll records from your employer as soon as possible. Under California law, your employer is required to let you inspect your personnel file within 30 days of a request. You can also submit a written request for your employer to mail you a copy of your personnel file. Your employer must do so within 30 days, but can charge you for the reasonable cost of copying the records.
California law also requires your employer to provide your payroll records within 21 days of a request. You might be able to collect a penalty if your employer refuses to provide either set of documents.
It’s also helpful to create a timeline of events, starting from your date of hire and continuing to the present day. You should include any dates where you were promised raises, started earning tips or commissions, changed your work hours, or other information relating to the wage violation. You can use this timeline as a reference when presenting your case at a settlement conference or hearing.
In most cases, you will need to attend a settlement conference before the actual wage hearing. The settlement conference is an informal meeting that takes place with you, your employer, and a deputy labor commissioner at the DLSE’s office. The conference may start out with all of you meeting in the same room to discuss the issues in dispute. The labor commissioner will then put you and your employer into separate rooms, and go back and forth to discuss the issues and communicate settlement offers. The process usually takes at least a couple of hours, unless it’s clear that you can’t reach a settlement agreement.
The settlement conference is not an evidentiary hearing, so you don’t need to bring any witnesses to testify. However, you should bring copies of any documents you have in support of your claim. You should also come prepared with an idea of how much you are entitled to under the law—including unpaid wages and penalties—and what you are willing to settle for. (For more information on this topic, see What’s Your Unpaid Wage Claim Worth in California?)
If you can’t attend the scheduled settlement conference, it is very important that you contact the DLSE’s office beforehand. Your claim will be dismissed if you fail to show up without a very good reason. The same goes for the evidentiary hearing.
If you and your employer can’t reach an agreement at the settlement conference, your case will be scheduled for an evidentiary hearing. The hearing will take place at the DLSE’s offices, in a labor commissioner’s office or a conference room. Although the setting may seem informal, the meeting will be recorded and anyone who attends will be testifying under oath.
The hearing usually begins with an opening statement from the labor commissioner. After that, you will have an opportunity to present your case. The labor commissioner may also ask you questions throughout this time to clarify things. You should bring three sets of all of your documents (including originals)—one for you to reference, one to submit as evidence to the labor commissioner, and one for your employer.
You should also bring any witnesses who can support your claim. For example, if you are claiming that your employer owes you unpaid tips, you could bring a coworker who will testify that your employer routinely kept tips left by customers.
Once you are done presenting your evidence, your employer will have a chance to present its defense. Your employer might submit documents or bring witnesses to testify, such as a supervisor who set your hourly rate of pay. You will have an opportunity to question these witnesses as well, so come prepared with a list of questions. You should also make notes as the witnesses testify, which you can reference when it’s time for you to question them.
The Labor Commissioner will review all of the evidence and mail a written decision to you and your employer, usually within a few weeks. The decision will state whether you’re entitled to payment from your employer, and if so, when payment is due. If you’re not happy with the decision, you have the right to appeal. Be sure to read the decision carefully, as the deadlines for filing an appeal are very short (typically within 10 days).
You are allowed, but not required, to have an attorney represent you at any stage of the wage claim process. The process is designed to be accessible to workers, so in many cases, it may be worthwhile to represent yourself. This is especially true if your claim is small or very straightforward—for example, if you are claiming only a few weeks’ worth of overtime pay or your only claim is for clearly unauthorized deductions.
However, if you have a large or complicated claim—for example, you are claiming minimum wage or overtime violations over the span of many months—you should consider hiring a lawyer. This is especially true if your employer is claiming that you are an independent contractor or exempt employee who is not entitled to minimum wage or overtime, as these issues can become very complicated. For more on this topic, see Unpaid Wages: Do You Need a Lawyer?