Has your California employer failed to pay you all of the wages you've earned? California law imposes stiff penalties on employers who violate its wage and hour laws. If you win a lawsuit or a wage claim filed with the California Labor Commissioner, you may be awarded not only the wages you should have received, but also penalties for your employer's violation of the law. The penalties available depend on your legal claims.
In any action against your employer for unpaid wages, you will be asking for the money you should have been paid. Technically speaking, these amounts are considered "damages" rather than penalties. Damages are intended to compensate employees for losses they have suffered. You earned those wages, and they should have been paid to you in the first place. By contrast, penalties are additional fines imposed on the employer for violating your rights. They are intended to punish the employer and deter the employer from acting illegally in the future.
Your lost wages (sometimes called "back pay") are simply the amounts your employer should have paid you for your work. If your employer failed to pay you for some of your work hours, you will be awarded back pay in the amount of your total unpaid hours times your hourly wage. For example, if your regular hourly wage is $15 an hour, and you worked 30 hours "off the clock" for which you were not paid, you will receive $450 in back pay.
California has a daily overtime standard, giving employees who are eligible to earn overtime the right to overtime pay (time and a half) for every hour over eight they work in a day. Employees also have the right to overtime if they work more than 40 hours in a week, even if their hours on any day don't exceed eight (for example, if they work more than five days in a week). Employees who work seven consecutive days in a workweek are also entitled to time-and-a-half for the first eight hours of work on the seventh day. If your employer didn't count or pay you for overtime hours, you would be entitled to time and a half – one and a half times your usual hourly rate – for every overtime hour worked, as part of your back pay award.
You may also be eligible for double time – twice your regular rate of pay – if you work:
California law requires employers to give employees a paid ten-minute rest break for every four hours worked (or major fraction of four hours). In addition, employees are entitled to an unpaid 30-minute meal break once they work five hours. An employee who works more than ten hours is entitled to a second unpaid 30-minute meal break. Under California law, employers owe a penalty of one hour of pay at the employee's regular rate for every workday in which a meal break is not provided. The same rule applies to rest breaks. For example, if you work an eight-hour shift, and your employer fails to provide you with meal and rest breaks, you can collect two hours of pay – one hour for the missed meal period and one hour for the missed rest breaks.
If your employer has failed to pay you at least the applicable minimum wage for every hour worked, you may be entitled to liquidated damages. Liquidated damages are a set amount intended to compensate you for losses that are difficult to quantify. In the case of failure to pay the minimum wage, the law presumes that being deprived of your earned compensation has caused you to suffer additional losses.
If you were paid less than the minimum wage, you are entitled to liquidated damages equal to the amount of your lost wages. For example, if your employer paid you only $10 an hour, but you were legally entitled to $15 an hour, you would receive an extra $5 for each hour worked. If you worked 80 hours in a pay period, you would be entitled to $400 in unpaid wages and an additional $400 in liquidated damages.
Under California law, if you are fired, you have the right to receive your final paycheck immediately (at the time of termination). If you quit, and you gave at least 72 hours' notice, you are entitled to receive your final paycheck immediately (at the time of quitting). If you quit without giving 72 hours' notice, your employer has 72 hours from the date you gave notice to provide your final check.
Your final paycheck must include not only compensation for all hours worked (including the overtime premium, if applicable), but also payment for all accrued, unused vacation time.
If your paycheck is late or does not include all of the wages or vacation you are owed, you may be entitled to waiting time penalties. For every day your employer is late, you are entitled to a full day of wages at your regular rate, up to a maximum of 30 days. For example, if you typically earn $170 per day, and your employer is ten days late with your check, you can collect $1,700 in waiting time penalties.
California law requires employers to provide certain information to employees with their paychecks, including your hourly rate, hours worked, total pay, deductions, and so on. Typically, this information is set out on the employee's pay stub. If your employer failed to provide this information to you, or provided inaccurate information (as would be the case if you weren't paid for all hours worked, for example), you will be eligible for penalties. Your employer must pay $50 for the first violation, and $100 for each subsequent violation, up to a maximum penalty of $4,000.
If you file a lawsuit as a "private attorney general" (that is, you file on behalf of the state to enforce the Labor Code), you may also be eligible to collect penalties for payday law violations. These penalties aren't available if you sue only on your own behalf.
Under California law, employers must pay employees who are eligible to earn overtime at least twice a month, on designated paydays. If you aren't paid on time at the proper rate for all hours worked, the employer may have to pay a penalty of $100 for the first pay period and $200 for subsequent pay periods. This penalty is per employee. When you file as a private attorney general, the state gets 75% of the money you collect; you get the rest.
As you can see, the penalties available to employees who win a wage claim or wage lawsuit against their California employers are significant. In addition, California wage and hour laws give successful employees the right to collect attorneys' fees and court costs. This makes strong wage and hour cases, particularly those involving a number of employees, quite attractive to plaintiffs' attorneys.
If you believe your employer has violated California wage and hour laws, you should meet with an experienced employment lawyer. A lawyer can assess the facts of your case, explain your potential damages, and help you decide how best to protect your rights.