Is Unpaid Training Legal in California?

Yes, unpaid training is illegal in California. California employers must pay for mandatory training. Employees not paid for meetings or job training can sue for unpaid training.

Author: Brad Nakase, Attorney

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You show up for work, and the employer requires mandatory job training such as sexual harassment, computer system, or machine. The time you spend training is working time and must be paid. If the training is sitting in a meeting and listening, that is work time and must be paid. Slavery was abolished and no workers should attend mandatory work training for free! If the employer does not pay you for mandatory training, you can sue.

In this article, our Los Angeles employment attorney discusses unpaid job training as follows:

If my employer refuses to pay for mandatory training, what should I do?

All employers that require their workers to attend mandatory training must pay wages for the training. If your employer refuses to pay for mandatory training, you should contact an employment attorney to help you get compensated for attending the mandatory training. Most employment attorneys will work on a contingent basis, meaning they will only be paid if they recover money for you.

Illegal Unpaid Training

Unpaid training is a common method used by sneaky employers who want to save money. However, it is illegal. Employees subjected to unpaid training still need to pay bills and travel to and from work. An employer who makes an employee do unpaid training is thereby stealing wages. Under California employment law, all time spent working for an employer, or time spent “on the job,” must be compensated. Even if the work is not considered “productive,” the employee must still be paid.

Employers often claim that employees in training are not actually working, and therefore they should not be paid. Sometimes they might schedule training to be after work in order to make it seem less work-related. It’s also possible they might dock an employee’s daily pay while the employee undergoes training. All the above situations are a violation of employee rights.

Mandatory Training Must Be Paid

It is legal for employers to offer career development or training courses. If the courses are optional, then technically they can qualify as a perk, not work time. This is because the training is not considered necessary for job performance.

However, training that is considered mandatory for a job to be performed correctly is considered work. It should therefore be compensated.

Example: Beth is training to be a fry cook at a restaurant. When the restaurant hires her, they tell her she must undergo a weeklong training course on how to prepare food. Because the training is considered essential for Beth to do her job correctly, it qualifies as work. Therefore, Beth should get paid for her training.

Job-Related Training  Must Be Paid

An employer who requires an employee to attend training related to their work duties must pay that employee, regardless of whether the training is held during work hours or off-the-clock. An employee who practices or learns on-the-job skills must be compensated because they are officially working for the employer.

An employee who does training to improve their own skills does not need to be compensated for this training. But an employee who does required training requested by the employer must be paid.

Example: Dorian works for a graphic design company. At the start of his employment, Dorian took a mandatory course where he learned how to use the company’s software and did a sample project. For this training, he received compensation consistent with his agreed-upon pay. Six months later, Dorian learns about another training course offered by the company. He would get to learn about how to use a separate art program that he does not use for his daily job but might want to know in the future. His job does not require he do the training, but Dorian does it so that he can advance his career prospects. When he finishes the course, he asks his employer to be compensated for the two weeks he spent doing the training after-hours. His boss explains that because the training was not related to his position and not required, Dorian does not have the right to payment.

Regular or Overtime Work Hours

Regardless of whether an employer assigns an employee to train during work hours or off-the-clock, he must compensate the employee for their time. This means that if an employer tells an employee to go to a mandatory training meeting during the workday, the employee must be paid. Similarly, if an employer asks that an employee attend a training session after work, the employee must be paid overtime.

Example: Fabio manages a hair salon. He asks his employee, Saoirse, to stay after work to do a training course on cutting children’s hair. Saoirse does the training course. Fabio does not pay Saoirse because he says she did not do any actual work and was off-the-clock anyway. But because Fabio asked Saoirse to do the training, he must pay her overtime.

Training That Produces Value

Importantly, training that results in a product for the company must always be compensated. An employer cannot receive goods or services of value from unpaid training time. Many employers have gotten in trouble for not paying interviewees for labor provided during demonstrations. Employees that create something of value, which an employer then uses, have had their time stolen.

Example: Hattie is interviewing for a political think tank. During the interview process, the employer asks her to write an essay examining the economic relationship between Russia and the West. Hattie spends three days writing a well-researched essay, which she then submits to the employer. The employer ends up hiring Hattie, and he then uploads her essay onto the company blog. Hattie is thrilled until she learns that she will not be paid for those three days she spent writing the essay. Under California law, Hattie’s boss is illegally stealing her time. Because unpaid training is illegal, he must pay her for the three days of “training,” or demonstration, since she performed work of value for the company.

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