California has some of the strongest wage laws in the country. However, many workers do not understand their rights under these laws, and unethical employers can use that to their advantage. That’s how many California employees wind up being paid below minimum wage without knowing it or realizing that their rights are being violated.
If you work in California, you have the right to receive at least $15.50 per hour in 2023. That’s true whether you’re salaried, a tipped worker, a piece-rate employee, employed full- or part-time, or even an undocumented immigrant. If you aren’t receiving that, your employer is violating the law. Here’s what you should know about your right to receive the minimum wage and what you can do if your employer isn’t paying you correctly.
California’s Laws on Minimum Wage Requirements
What is the lowest legal wage an employer can pay? The minimum wage. That is why it is called the minimum: no matter what else occurs, employers are legally obligated to pay their employees at least that amount per hour.
Standard hourly workers understand this, but other types of employees may not. For example, piece-rate workers, salaried employees, and tipped staff may think they are exempt from this rule. This is because unethical employers have allowed and even encouraged misconceptions about these exceptions to the minimum compensation rule.
These employees are indeed different from hourly workers. Here’s how:
- Piece-rate: People who work for piece-rate compensation are paid a flat amount for each “piece” they complete during a shift. For example, California is home to thousands of garment piecing factory workers paid per item of clothing they cut, trim, or otherwise complete.
- Salary: Salaried employees are paid a set amount per pay period regardless of how much work they do. They are considered “exempt” workers, which means they are exempt from hourly pay and overtime considerations.
- Tipped staff: Tipped workers are employees who receive at least $30 monthly in tips in addition to their hourly pay, such as restaurant waitstaff. Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), they can be paid just $2.13 per hour, assuming they will make up the rest of the amount in tips.
You may assume you are not owed the wage if you are salaried, tipped, or paid by piece rate. However, this is not true.
In California, every employee is owed at least the minimum wage, full stop. This includes salaried employees, piece-rate workers, and tipped staff. Here’s how it works for each of these classifications:
- Unlike federal statutes, California law does not classify tipped workers and other hourly staff differently. Whether or not an employee routinely receives tips, they are still owed the local minimum.
- As of 2016, all California employers who pay workers piece-rate compensation must calculate their pay based on standard state minimum wages, including overtime. Employers must pay workers that amount or the piece-rate amount for their work, whichever is higher.
- Salaried workers must be paid at least the minimum wage and overtime for the time they work if they are not exempt. To be exempt, a worker must receive a salary at least double the standard minimum for full-time work: currently, $64,480 per year. Salaried employees paid less than that must be paid overtime or additional wages if that amount would be higher than their salary.
Examples of Unjust Wages
There are many examples of unjust unpaid wages in California. If any of the following situations sound familiar to you, your employer may be unlawfully paying you less than the minimum wage:
- Paying workers piece rates that come out to less than the minimum
- Taking money out of employee paychecks for uniforms or other business expenses that leave them less than the minimum
- Paying a salary of less than $32,240 for full-time work
- Paying less than $15.50 per hour to any hourly workers
- Paying immigrants below rate and threatening them with deportation if they file a complaint
What to Do If Your Employer Isn’t Paying You the Minimum Wage
You may wonder, “Is underpaying wages a crime?” In California, yes, it is. An employer can be convicted of theft for withholding wages, which includes failing to pay minimum wages. In fact, purposefully withholding more than $950 from one worker or $2350 from two or more workers is considered a felony.
However, criminal charges will not help you receive the unpaid wages you’re owed. Instead, you need to file an unpaid wage claim with the Labor Commissioner. Unpaid wage claims allow the Labor Commissioner to review your case and determine if your employer has been underpaying you. Here’s how to get started:
- Talk to a lawyer: Before you file your claim, you should consider speaking with an experienced employment law attorney. Your lawyer will help you gather the right evidence to support your claim and give you the best possible chance of receiving the full back pay and damages you’re owed.
- File a claim: Your attorney will submit your documentation to the Labor Commissioner along with your complaint.
- Go to a settlement conference: If the Commissioner determines there may be unpaid wages, a settlement conference will be scheduled between you and your employer. Your attorney will attend with you and help you advocate for the full unpaid wages you’re due.
- Attend a wage claim hearing: If you do not achieve a settlement, you will attend a wage claim hearing. During this hearing, an officer appointed by the Commissioner will make a legally binding decision about whether you are owed wages. Having your lawyer present can help you present your case and improve the chances of receiving all the money you are owed.
At the Law Offices of Todd M. Friedman, P.C., we have decades of experience helping workers like you get paid fairly for their work. Learn how we can help you fight against wage and hour violations and receive the minimum wage by calling our employment law firm in Los Angeles, California, at 323-973-2504 or reaching out online.