If your employer owes you unpaid wages, you may want to file a wage claim with the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), which is part of the state’s Department of Industrial Relations. In a wage claim, you can collect wages that your employer failed to pay, for things like overtime, commissions and bonuses, travel time, business expenses, meal and rest breaks, unauthorized deductions from your paycheck, and delays in providing your final paycheck.
To find out whether you have grounds for a wage claim, and how much you might receive, select your state from the list at Wage and Hour Laws by State.
To initiate your claim, you must file an "Initial Report or Claim" (Form 1) with the DLSE. You can find the form, along with instructions, at the DLSE's How to File a Wage Claim page. The DLSE website also provides helpful information on what documents to attach, where to file, and more.
After you file your claim, it will be assigned to a Deputy Labor Commissioner. The Commissioner will make an initial decision as to whether your claim should be dismissed, assigned to a settlement conference, or scheduled for a hearing. A claim will be dismissed if the DLSE has no authority to hear the allegations (for example, because your claim alleges discrimination rather than unpaid wages). You will be notified if your case is dismissed.
If your case is referred to either a conference or a hearing (or in many cases, both), you should receive a notice with that information within 30 days of filing the claim.
The purpose of a conference is to try to resolve your claims informally, without holding a hearing. At the conference, the Deputy Labor Commissioner will talk to you and your employer to find out whether a settlement is possible. You should bring any documents that prove your claims (for example, pay stubs showing that improper deductions were taken from your paycheck or time records showing how many hours your worked). You don’t have to bring witnesses, although you should tell the Commissioner about them at the conference.
The Commissioner can’t force you and your employer to settle the claim. If you don’t reach an agreement, the claim will either be referred to a hearing or dismissed (if the DLSE decides it has no authority to hear it). If your employer doesn’t appear at the conference, your claim will likely be referred to a hearing. However, if you don’t appear at the conference, your claim will likely be dismissed, unless you have good cause for missing it.
You will receive a notice if your claim is scheduled for a hearing. A hearing is kind of like a trial, only much less formal. You will testify under oath about your claim; your employer may do so as well. You can bring documents and witnesses that support your claims. You have the right to be represented by an attorney at the hearing, as does your employer. If you don't show up for your hearing, the Commissioner will probably dismiss your claim unless you have a very good reason for missing it.
The hearing officer may ask questions, review evidence, and ask you to explain your claims. After the hearing, you will receive the hearing officer’s decision within 15 days. If you win, the decision will explain how much your employer must pay you.
If you lose at the hearing stage or you believe you should have been awarded more money, you may file an appeal with the California Superior Court. You have only ten days to appeal the decision. The decision will explain how, when, and where to file an appeal.
While you're not required to have an attorney to file a wage claim, there are some situations where it may be worthwhile. If your claim is relatively small, or you only worked for the employer for a few months, you may not need an attorney. However, if you have a large claim for unpaid overtime, missed meal breaks and rest periods, or unpaid commissions, it's a good idea to at least consult with an employment lawyer. A lawyer will be able to evaluate your claims, advise you on what a good settlement offer is, represent you at a conference or hearing, or even file a lawsuit against your employer in court.