Updated on April 19th, 2023

6 Tips: How Far Back Can You Claim Unpaid Wages in California?

Unpaid wages will expose an employer to unpaid wages lawsuits that can be up to millions of dollars. It can be unsettling when an individual learns that their former or current employer did not pay them the proper amount of income. When a worker is confident that they are owed wages, there are several options they can take to attempt to reclaim the unpaid income that they are rightfully owed. Sometimes, it is a clear issue for employees, but sometimes workers have recently learned about wage rights, and their suspicion that something was amiss concerning their paychecks is suddenly confirmed.

By: Brad Nakase, Attorney

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Unpaid Earnings in California: An Overview

As is true across the United States, there are distinct times when companies in California violate the law in numerous and different ways. Some workers report that they were never compensated for overtime work. Other employees contest that they have not been allowed the state’s required rest and meal breaks. While sometimes successful wage claims do not return a large amount of compensation, other times, workers have reportedly recovered thousands of dollars in unpaid earnings.

How Far Back Can Unpaid Wage Claims Reach: Is There a Limit?

Under California state law, an employee can only seek unpaid compensation that dates to a specific time. There are limits, then, on how far back an unpaid wage claim can go. This is in part to protect companies from unfair or inflated earnings claims. Individuals who feel a violation has occurred have the right to file a lawsuit, of course, if they feel they are owed money, but the employee only has up to four years during which to file this type of claim.

Here are the specific timelines for wage claims in California:

  • For a written contract for work, four years is acceptable
  • For a verbal promise to pay earnings more than minimum wage, two years is the number
  • For penalties related to bounced checks, or a failure to provide a copy of or access to workers’ payroll records, one year is given
  • Based on claims related to overtime pay, rest and meal breaks, sick leave, unpaid compensation for business expenses, minimum wage, and illegal paycheck deductions, three years is provided

Pay Attention to the Timeline

Even if a worker has a valid unpaid wages claim, they must be cognizant of the timeline. They will have a specific window to report the earnings claim in California, and if they do not file the claim during that time, there can be negative consequences. For example, a worker can be permanently banned from the right to recover the money they are rightfully due. For questions related to the timeliness of your claim, it is beneficial to speak with a qualified employment law attorney in California.

Unpaid Wages Claims: What is Included?

Not to be overlooked, earnings paid on an hourly basis should be included in a claim made for any unpaid wages. Other employees have different requests that can also be included, such as unpaid reimbursement of business expenses, unpaid commissions and bonuses, and unpaid PTO and vacation time. All of these can be reimbursed if the worker contacts an employment attorney and is able to file a successful unpaid earnings claim.

Independent Contractors in California

In California, contractors considered “independent” are unable to claim unpaid earnings. However, these special workers may be permitted to file a lawsuit claiming breach of contract if they are not paid on time. While the process may be a little different for independent workers who are paid on unfair terms, it is a smart move to contact a skilled employment law attorney if a worker feels they possess a valid claim. Adding up the earnings that an independent contractor knows they are owed—wages that are yet unpaid—is a great first step for these employees.

Proving an Unpaid Earnings Claim

First off, contacting an attorney for a free consultation regarding a wage claim is a sensible first step. If the individual chooses to proceed, their lawyer will ask the worker to provide them with certain relevant documents and provide testimony to support your request.

When an employment attorney in California requests that an employee or former employee give them documents, they will probably ask for:

  • Notices of employment information
  • Paychecks and paystubs
  • Paychecks that may have bounced
  • Financial records

If the employee is part of a CBA or a Collective Bargaining Agreement, they will also want to provide a copy of their CBA.

If an employee who would like to make a wage claim cannot find all of these pertinent documents, a lawyer can provide guidance and even help track them down. If an attorney aids a claimant in finding the documents they need, this process is known legally as “discovery” and can be very helpful in cases like these.

Next Steps After Filing an Unpaid Wages Claim

After a claim for earnings is filed, workers must find, collect, and submit all of the relevant documentation in support of their claim. Documentation is a must in order for the claim to be recognized and validated.

After this occurs, the involved parties will hold a conference of settlement. The unpaid wage claim can quickly be dismissed if the claimant refuses to attend the planned conference. However, settlement conferences often prove successful, with an agreement that is acceptable for both parties being reached. If this is the case, there is no need for the issue to proceed to trial.

On the other hand, sometimes, one or both parties find it impossible to reach a satisfactory agreement. If this occurs, a hearing is held. This is called a wages or earnings claim hearing. Just like last time, if the claimant fails to attend the hearing, the wage claim is promptly dismissed.

Ideally, an agreement is reached during the settlement conference, but if not, the hearing is a chance for both parties to provide their side of the dispute and a verdict to be issued. It is recommended that the claimant retain a skilled employment lawyer for both the settlement conference and the wage claim hearing.

Nakase Law Firm: Excellent Wage Claim Representation.

Wage claim disputes are common in California, and employees who are owed earnings should be able to collect them. If your former or current employer has violated the law in any way and you are owed wages, contact an employment attorney who you can trust. At Nakase Law Firm, we have experience dealing with various employment issues in California, including cases regarding unpaid wages. We will protect your rights while quickly recovering the earnings you are due. Call us for a free consultation today.

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What Is A Hostile Work Environment?

The law defines an unlawful hostile work environment to mean when a superior or coworker communication or behavior that is offensive, intimating, or discriminate on the basis of gender, religion, race, ethnicity, etc.

Can you take unpaid time off in California?

There is no legal requirement in California that an employer provide its employees with either paid or unpaid vacation time. However, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives eligible employees the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year.

DFEH Right to Sue

To file a lawsuit for discrimination, you must file a complaint with DFEH and obtain a Right-to-Sue notice.

Is It Illegal To Not Pay Overtime?

Yes, it is illegal for employer to not pay overtime because California law requires that employers pay overtime, whether authorized or not.

What Is Rate Pay Meaning?

The meaning of pay rate is the average hourly rate an employee is paid calculated by dividing the total pay for employment in a work week by the total number of hours actually worked.

California Break Laws

Under California law, non-exempt workers are entitled to two paid 10-minute rest breaks and one unpaid meal break during their eight-hour shift. 

Not Getting Paid for Work I Have Done

Workers who have not been paid for work have the right to file a claim with the federal and state Department of Labor for unpaid wages.

California Overtime Law

Under California overtime law, an employee who works over eight hours a day or over forty hours per week is entitled to overtime pay at one and one-half times the regular rate of pay.

Who is exempt from overtime pay?

As of 2023, to be exempt from overtime pay, any employees who are paid at least $62,400 per year and work are primarily professional, executive, creative, managerial, or intellectual and require the exercise of independent judgment.

Can Previous Employers Talk Bad About You?

There are no state or federal laws prohibiting what a previous employer can or cannot say about a former employee. However, previous employers are not permitted to make up lies to damage your reputation and make it difficult for you to get another job.

Can An Employer Cut Your Pay as Punishment?

Employers cannot cut hours to retaliate against employees. Cutting the hours of an employee should never be used as discipline or in an attempt to make an employee quit. 

California Random Drug Testing Law

Random drug testing is not permitted in California, and employers must give their employees notice before a drug test is given.

What happens if you get caught working under the table?

Generally, it is not illegal for your employer to pay you in cash. However, if the employer paid you under the table and did not report your earnings, you may be entitled to money damages under California Labor Code 226.

ADA Proof of Disability

An employer has no right to ask an employee to provide proof of disability unless the employee requests a reasonable accommodation and the employer does not believe disability exists.

FMLA Retaliation and Wrongful Discharge

An employer is prohibited from retaliating, interfering with, restraining, or denying an employee’s exercise of any FMLA right. If an employer wrongfully terminates an employee for FLMA taking medical leave, the worker could have a lawsuit against the employer.

Per Diem Employee Rights

A per diem employee is a worker who work on an as needed basis. A per diem employee does not have a regular schedule or shift but instead works hours as assigned.

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