Skip to main content
October 13, 2023

4 Ways to Sue for Unpaid Wages in California

Legally reviewed by: Jessica Anvar Stotz, JD, MBA

Suing for unpaid wages is a recourse available to workers in California who find themselves in the unfortunate situation of not being paid fairly for their labor. Whether it’s a case of not receiving the minimum wage, unpaid overtime, or other wage violations, California law provides several avenues for employees to seek redress.

In this article, we’ll explore the various methods and legal actions that individuals in California can take to recover unpaid wages. These options include filing wage claims with government agencies, pursuing federal wage claims, initiating wage and hour lawsuits in court, and consulting employment attorneys for legal assistance.

Who Can Sue for Unpaid Wages in California

Employees in California who have not received the wages they are owed can sue for unpaid wages. This includes various types of compensation, such as regular wages, overtime pay, commissions, tips, and more.

To provide a more detailed perspective on who can sue for unpaid wages, consider the following:

  • California Employee Rights: All employees in California, regardless of their immigration status, have the right to be paid for the work they do. This means that both U.S. citizens and foreign-born workers are protected under California labor laws when it comes to wage disputes.
  • Minimum Wage and Overtime Violations: If an employer pays an employee less than the minimum wage or fails to pay overtime when required by law, the affected employee can file a lawsuit to recover unpaid wages and overtime, along with interest, reasonable attorney’s fees, and court costs under California Labor Code 1194.
  • Wage and Hour Violations: If an employer violates wage and hour laws in California, multiple employees who are affected by these violations can collectively file a lawsuit against the employer. These violations may involve issues like meal and rest break violations, misclassification of employees, or improper payment of wages.

It’s important to note that there is a three-year statute of limitations for wage and hour lawsuits in California. This means that employees generally have up to three years from the date of the most recent violation to bring a lawsuit for unpaid wages.

Any employee in California, regardless of their immigration status, can sue for unpaid wages if they have not been paid correctly according to the state’s labor laws. This includes issues related to minimum wage, overtime, and various wage and hour violations.

4 Different Ways to Sue for Unpaid Wages

Suing for unpaid wages in the United States can be done through various channels. Here are four different ways to take legal action for unpaid wages, along with the steps involved:

1) File a Wage Claim with the Department of Labor

To file a wage claim, you can contact your state’s Department of Labor or the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division and provide details about your wage dispute, including dates, hours worked, and unpaid amounts. The department will investigate your claim and may work to recover your unpaid wages.

2) Contact an Employment Attorney

An employment attorney can assess your case and can help you negotiate with your employer or take legal action.

3) Demand Letter to Your Employer

In drafting a formal demand letter outlining your wage dispute, include specific details such as the amount owed, the work performed, and any violations of labor laws. Send the letter to your employer, requesting payment within a specified timeframe.

4) File a Lawsuit in Civil Court

If other methods fail, you can file a lawsuit in civil court. You should consult with an attorney to prepare the necessary legal documents. The case will proceed through litigation, including court appearances, negotiations, and potentially a trial.

The appropriate method for suing for unpaid wages may vary depending on your situation, because of this, we highly recommend working with legal professionals for guidance.

sue for unpaid wage claim

Types of Wages You Can Sue for

In California and many other jurisdictions, the following are common types of wages for which you can pursue legal action:

  • Minimum Wage Violations: If your employer fails to pay you the legally mandated minimum wage for the hours worked, you can sue to recover the unpaid wages. In California, the minimum wage may vary depending on the size of the employer and local ordinances.
  • Overtime Pay: Non-exempt employees who work more than a certain number of hours in a day or week are entitled to overtime pay. If your employer doesn’t pay overtime when required, you can sue for unpaid overtime wages.
  • Unpaid Commissions: If your job involves earning commissions, and your employer does not compensate you as agreed, you can take legal action to recover the unpaid commission earnings.
  • Missed Bonuses: Some employment contracts include bonuses as part of the compensation package. If your employer fails to pay promised bonuses, you can sue for those unpaid amounts.
  • Tips: Employees in certain industries, such as hospitality, often rely on tips. If your employer unlawfully withholds or mismanages your tips, you can sue to recover those earnings.
  • Wage Theft: This encompasses various wage-related violations, including not paying for all hours worked, altering time records, or any other practices that result in unpaid wages.

You should work with an employment attorney to determine the specific types of unpaid wages you are owed and to understand your legal options for pursuing a lawsuit against your employer.

How Much Will My Claim Be Worth?

The worth of an unpaid wage claim in California can vary widely depending on several factors, including the amount of unpaid wages, any late payment penalties, and the minimum wage rates applicable in your location. Here are factors that affect your ultimate settlement amount:

  • Unpaid Wages: Calculate the difference between what you were actually paid per hour and what you should have been paid per hour, then multiply this by the total number of hours worked.
  • Late Payment Penalties: If applicable, late payment penalties can add to the value of your claim.
  • Minimum Wage Rates: The minimum wage in California can vary by location. In 2023, it’s set to be $15.50 per hour for all employees, but some cities may have higher rates.

For example, if you were underpaid by $2 per hour for 200 hours of work, your unpaid wage claim would be $400 (200 hours x $2 per hour). Late payment penalties, if applicable, could add to this amount.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the damages for unpaid wages in California?

The damages for unpaid wages in California may include all unpaid wages and overtime, plus interest, reasonable attorney’s fees, and court costs as outlined in California Labor Code §1194. Damages can vary depending on the specific circumstances of the wage violation

How long do you have to claim wages in California?

In California, the time limit for claiming unpaid wages varies depending on the nature of the violation. For violations of minimum wage, overtime, unpaid rest and meal breaks, sick leave, illegal deductions from pay, or unpaid reimbursements, you have three years to file a wage claim. If the claim is related to a written contract, you have four years to file a wage claim.

Who is personally liable for unpaid wages in California?

Individuals who can be held personally liable for unpaid wages are typically owners, directors, managing agents, or corporate officers of a company. This personal liability is governed by California Labor Code Section 558.1.

Under this section, if such individuals, acting on behalf of the company, are found to be responsible for wage and hour violations, they may be held personally liable for unpaid wages. The purpose of this provision is to ensure that employees can recover unpaid wages more effectively.

Recent court decisions have clarified and reinforced the personal liability of these individuals for unpaid wages, emphasizing that courts should not excuse individual liability to maintain the effectiveness of Section 558.1.

How long does an employer have to pay you after payday in California?

In California, employers are required to pay their employees promptly on their designated payday. The specific rules for payment in California are as follows:

  • Employers must inform employees of the specific dates during the workweek when they will be paid.
  • Payment for work completed between the 1st and 15th day of the month must be made on or before the 26th calendar day of the month.
  • Payment for work completed between the 16th and the last day of the month must be made on or before the 10th day of the following month.

These rules ensure that employees receive their wages promptly and in compliance with California labor laws. Employers must adhere to these guidelines to avoid any delays in paying their employees.

Additionally, it’s important to note that recent legislation in California has expanded paid sick leave requirements, guaranteeing workers at least five paid sick days per year, and these changes may impact employers’ obligations regarding leave benefits.

How long does an employer have to fix a payroll error in California?

In California, if there is a payroll error, the employer should correct it as soon as possible. The specific timeframe for correction is not clearly defined by California labor laws, but prompt correction is encouraged.

Delaying the correction of payroll errors, especially on a final paycheck, can result in waiting time penalties, which could amount to one full day’s wages for every day the employee has to wait, up to a maximum of 30 days.

Get Connected with a Lawyer

Need legal help for unpaid wages in California? LawLinq may be able to help you. We are a California-based lawyer referral service that connects individuals in need of legal assistance with qualified lawyers in various practice areas, at no cost.

We regularly monitor member lawyers for credentials, ethics, performance, and fees to ensure professionalism and ethical conduct. To connect with an attorney through LawLinq, you can contact our team at (855) 997-2558.

About the Author

Jessica Anvar

California Consumer Litigation Attorney Jessica Anvar, Esq. is the Founder and Managing Partner of Lemon Law Experts California’s leading lemon law firm. She has multiple years’ worth of experience working with both state and federal lemon laws. Her practice focuses exclusively on consumer protection cases. Ms. Anvar received her J.D. from Loyola Law School. She also earned a Master of Business Administration degree from Loyola Marymount University. Jessica is very active in her local legal community and has helped thousands of clients across the state of California. She has an outstanding record as a true advocate for consumers.

Request A Lawyer

Request a Lawyer Referral

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Call Us: (855) 997-2558