Employees in the United States are protected by federal laws as well as state laws. If you believe that your employer has not paid you due wages or shortchanged you by violating wage and hour laws, you can file a lawsuit to recover your unpaid wages. However, workers who have been victims of wage theft have to file an unpaid wage claim within a certain amount of time.
These legal actions are bound by what is known as the "statute of limitations" or the deadline by when they must be filed. This is why it is important to contact an experienced California unpaid wages lawyer who will fight to protect your rights and win fair compensation for your losses.
Key Points - Table of Contents
- Deadline To File Under Federal Law
- Deadline To File Under State Law
- What Is The Statute Of Limitations On Wage Claims In California?
- Claims For Penalties Under Labor Code §226
- Claims For Meal And Rest Periods Under Labor Code § 226.7
- Claims For Unpaid Wages Including Minimum Wage, Overtime Wages And Off-The- Clock Wages
- Claims For Waiting Time Penalties Under Labor Code §203
- Claims For Unreimbursed Expenses
- Claim Versus Lawsuit
- Consulting With An Experienced Lawyer
Deadline to File Under Federal Law
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employees to file a wage lawsuit within two years of the date of the wage violation. If the wage violation is something that is ongoing, you will only be allowed to recover unpaid wages for the two years before you file your claim. For example, if you are claiming that your employer has failed to pay you minimum wage since Jan. 1 2016 and you wait until June 1, 2019 to file your lawsuit, you will only be allowed to seek unpaid wages from June 1, 2017 to June 1, 2019.
If your employer willfully violated federal wage laws, then your deadline to file will be extended to three years. An FLSA violation is deemed to be "willful" if the employer knew or should have known that their conduct was prohibited under labor laws or if the employer showed reckless disregard as to whether their conduct was prohibited under the law.
Deadline to File Under State Law
States have their own wage and hour laws. California has strong protections for workers in this regard. In California, employees have three years to file a lawsuit with regard to most wage violations. An experienced California employment lawyer can help ensure that your statute of limitations doesn't run out. Once that happens, you may not be able to file a lawsuit or seek compensation for your losses.
In California, 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 state's Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) will look back three years from the date you filed the claim. If your wage claim is based on your employer's oral promises to pay you more than a minimum wage, you will have only two years to file a claim. However, if you had a written contract with your employer, you have four years to file your claim.
A knowledgeable attorney can help you file a wage claim or lawsuit well before the deadline and help ensure that your claims under state and federal laws are preserved. When you file your claim without delay you will also be more likely to have access to witnesses and documents who can help support your claim.
What is the Statute of Limitations on Wage Claims in California?
The statute of limitations in California for wage claims varies depending on the type of claim you make against your employer. The following time limits apply whether you file a civil case in a California state court or a federal district court.
Under California law, employers must provide an itemized statement with each paycheck. The law also gives workers the right to review or copy their employment records. When employers don't comply with these laws, they are subject to a penalty, which carries a one-year statute of limitations.
If your employer entered into an oral contract with you and failed to keep up that promise, the statute of limitations for wage claims that stem from such violations is two years. Claims under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) must also be filed within two years, but this time limit could be extended to three years for violations that are deemed willful.
A majority of unpaid wage claims fall under the three-year statute of limitations including:
- Minimum wage violations
- Overtime violations
- Meal and rest break violations
- Unpaid business reimbursements
- Penalties for unpaid final wages
If your employer violated a written employment contract, the statute of limitations is four years. Sometimes, the three-year limit for unpaid wage claims could be extended to four years if the employee claims that the employer was involved in unfair business practices.
Claims for Penalties Under Labor Code §226
California Labor Code Section 226 requires employers to provide itemize wage statements to employers, which clearly show gross and net wages as well as any deductions and the pay period. For non-exempt workers, the wage statement should also show the hourly rates and hours worked. Employers must provide employees with these wage statements once every two weeks or on each payday.
It is important to note that the law does not allow employees to waive their right to receive these wage statements. Labor Code 226 requires employers to provide workers with itemized wage statements even if they do not wish to receive them or don't care whether or not they receive them.
Employers are also required to keep these wage statements for up to three years. In addition, they must allow past and current employees to inspect these statements within 21 days of their request. If the employer fails to do so, they could be looking at a $750 civil penalty.
If you did not receive an itemized wage statement, you are entitled to $50 for a first paystub violation and $100 for any subsequent violations, up to $4,000. If you have to bring a civil action or file a lawsuit in court to recover these damages, your employer is also liable for any court costs and attorney's fees that you incur in the process.
Claims for Meal and Rest Periods Under Labor Code § 226.7
California Labor Code § 226.7 requires employers to pay their non-exempt or hourly employees an extra hour of wages at their regular rate of pay for each day they are made to work during their legally-required rest periods or meal breaks such as a lunch break. This rule also applies to recovery periods, which is essentially a "cool-down" period for workers to avoid heat illness in extreme hot weather.
Under this section of the labor code, for each day that workers are deprived of their legally-required rest or meal breaks, their employers must pay them for an additional hour of work at their regular rate of pay. For example, if your supervisor requires you to come to a training session or a business meeting during your lunch break, your employer is required to give you an extra hour's wages at your regular rate of pay.
The only exceptions to this rule are security officers employed by private companies who are not covered under a collective bargaining agreement. These employees may be legally required by their employers to remain on the premises during their breaks, remain on call or carry/monitor communications devices while on break.
However, if their rest period gets interrupted, they must be allowed to restart the rest period as soon as it is reasonable to do so. If security officers are not able to take a 10-minute uninterrupted rest period for every four hours they work, their employer must pay them for an extra hour of work at the regular rate of pay.
Claims for Unpaid Wages Including Minimum Wage, Overtime Wages and Off-the- Clock Wages
If you are bringing action against your employer for unpaid wages, you will be asking for wages that you should have been paid for work done. In a wage claim, unpaid wages are considered damages that are intended to compensate workers for the losses they have suffered as the result of the employer's wage violations. As an employee, you deserve to be paid for the work you performed.
Here are some of the most common types of violations that lead to unpaid wage claims:
Minimum wage violations: Employers are required under the law to pay every employee the minimum wage. In California, the minimum wage in 2023 is $15.50. However, there are other cities and counties where the minimum wage is higher. If you work in one of these jurisdictions, you should be paid the higher minimum wage.
Overtime wages: California law also requires employers to pay overtime wages at the rate of 1.5 times the regular rate of pay to employees who work more than 8 hours in one workday or over 40 hours in a workweek. In some cases, such as when you work more than 12 hours in a workday, you may even be entitled to double overtime.
Off-the-clock wages: Under California labor law, your employer cannot force you to work off the clock. This is illegal. Any time you spend working should be taken into account. This is true even if your employer did not authorize the additional time. If you worked off the clock, you can file a wage claim to get compensated for your losses.
Claims for Waiting Time Penalties Under Labor Code §203
California Labor Code Section 203 states that employers who fail to give their employee a final paycheck will be slapped with a "waiting time penalty" equal to the worker's daily rate of pay for each day the wages remain unpaid - for up to 30 days. However, former workers who deliberately avoid receiving their final paycheck will not be entitled to receive this waiting time penalty amount. If your employer failed to pay you final wages, you must file a wage and hour lawsuit within three years to recover your unpaid wages.
When workers quit without giving notice, employers have up to 72 hours to give them their final paycheck. However, if you gave at least 72 hours notice before quitting, then your employer must provide the final paycheck on your last workday and no later. If you were fired or laid off, your employer is required under the law to provide your final paycheck at the time of termination.
There are a number of things that should be included in your final paycheck including:
- Wages for the amount of time you worked during your final pay period.
- Any overtime pay you earned for working extra hours during this pay period.
- Value of accrued vacation that you did not use.
- Reimbursement for any business-related expenses.
Claims for Unreimbursed Expenses
California Labor Code Section 2802 requires employers to reimburse work-related expenses their employees incur. The main purpose of this labor law is to prevent employers in California from passing on the expenditures of running a business onto their employees. The law also states that employers cannot get employee to waive their right to these reimbursements. Even if an employee's contract has a provision that they will not be reimbursed for business expenses, this section of the labor code renders such provisions null and void, which means they will not be enforceable in a court of law.
Employers who fire workers because they have invoked their rights to be reimbursed for business expenses can be held liable for wrongful termination. California has strong laws when it comes to business expense reimbursement. Under federal law, employer are not required to reimburse employees for business expenses unless they would bring a worker's earnings under the minimum wage.
Some of the common work-related reimbursements include:
- Travel expenses
- Using a cell phone for business purposes
- Costs relating to attending conference for work
- Costs of a uniform that is required for the job
- Expenses related to entertaining business associates
- Mileage reimbursement for business-related trips
- Costs of job-related training or education
Claim Versus Lawsuit
When your employer violates the FLSA, you will be able to file a wage claim with the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division. But, it is important that you file your claim before the two-year statute of limitations expires. When you do so, you'll have sufficient time to file a lawsuit, should you not be able to resolve your claim through the agency's administrative process. In California, you can also file a wage claim through the Department of Labor.
Consulting with an Experienced Lawyer
If your employer owes you unpaid wages, it is imperative that you consult with an experienced unpaid wage lawyer who can identify the specific wage laws your employer has violated. A lawyer can also help ensure that your claim or lawsuit is filed before the statute of limitations runs out. Call Kingsley & Kingsley today to schedule your free consultation and comprehensive claim evaluation.