What Damages Can I Recover In A California Wage & Hour Lawsuit?

Jan 25, 2022 | Employment

Aggressive Wage & Hour Lawyers Explain What Compensation You Stand To Gain And Why It May Be Worth Filing A Claim

California has strict rules about how much employees should be paid in order to protect workers, but unfortunately, many employers act dishonestly and fail to pay their employees fairly for their labor. If you have been underpaid, you do have the legal right to bring a wage & hour claim against your employer and sue for damages. Making such a claim is a big deal, though; even though you won’t lose your job or miss out on promotions (your employer will not be legally able to retaliate against you in any way), the relationship between you and your employer may change or become awkward, and the dispute may become public.

If you are wondering whether or not filing a claim is worth the effort and awkwardness, you first need to determine what damages you can recover in a California wage & hour lawsuit – what your compensation may be if you do take action. The best way to do that is by discussing your specific case with an experienced local wage & hour attorney, but below is a brief, general summary of the types of damages you may be able to receive if you win your case.

Unpaid Minimum Wages

California has one of the highest minimum wage rates in the nation. At the time this article was written in early 2022, the state’s minimum wage is $14 for companies with 25 employees or fewer, and $15 for companies with 26 or more employees. By 2023, all employers will be required to pay at least $15 in minimum wage.

“At least”, because cities and counties may have different local minimum wages than the state for employees within their jurisdiction. California’s rule is that, when there are conflicting minimum wage requirements, the employer must follow the requirement that benefits the employee most (the higher minimum wage). For example, if you live in a county in California where the minimum wage is $17, your employer would be required to pay you this amount, not $15. If you are a tipped employee, you are still supposed to be paid a full minimum wage.

You can file a claim and recover damages for unpaid minimum wages. To get a starting point for how much you may be able to recover, take the difference between what you were paid and what you should have been paid (per hour) and multiply that amount by the hours you worked. To continue the above scenario, if you were paid $15 per hour for two months (4 weeks, at 40 hours a week) before you found out about the county discrepancy, you would multiply $2 (county minimum wage, $17, minus paid minimum wage, $15) by 320 hours and get $640. That’s how much you may be entitled to if that were your only claim, although there may be more factors involved that could increase that number.

Unpaid Overtime Wages

In California, damages for unpaid overtime are frequently sought and awarded; this is one of the most common employer violations. Employees who are classified as “exempt” are not eligible for overtime, so it is important to ensure that you have been classified correctly – employers may have misclassified you to keep more of your rightful paycheck in their pockets and essentially get more free labor from you. If you are classified as an hourly, non-exempt employee, then you have a right to be paid for overtime that you work. California employees should be paid time-and-a-half (50% more on top of regular pay) if they work more than 8 hours in a day or 40 hours in a week. They should also be paid time-and-a-half for the first 8 hours on their 7th consecutive workday. Employees should be paid double time for hours over 12 in a single workday and double time for any hours worked after the first 8 on their 7th consecutive workday.

Determining overtime pay can get complicated, so it is possible that your employer is not withholding your rightful pay on purpose, but whether or not the mistake was accidental or intentional, you are entitled to recover the difference between what you should have been paid and what you were paid, just like with unpaid minimum wages.

Unpaid Breaks & Violations

Under California law, employees have the right to a 30-minute unpaid meal break and a paid 10-minute break for every 4 hours worked. If your employer does not allow you to take these breaks, or if you are required to work during these breaks (for example, a receptionist eating but being required to man the phones), you could recover damages for not only your regular wages, but also a penalty on top of that. You can recover one hour of regular pay for each day that you missed one or more meal periods/breaks. Breaks that you should have been paid for do count as hours worked, and may push your total weekly hours above the overtime standard, which means that you also may be entitled to overtime pay if this is your situation.

Unpaid Sick Leave & Violations

California employers are legally required to give all employees 1 hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. If your employer doesn’t let you use or accrue your sick leave, you can recover pay for any sick time you had to take off that went unpaid, in addition to legal penalties. For sick leave, penalties are 3 times the value of the paid sick leave withheld or $250, whichever amount is greater, up to $4,000.

Attorney Fees

Many California employees for whom a couple hundred or couple thousand dollars in damages may not seem especially significant (for most workers, it is!) may wonder if the costs of hiring an attorney is worth it for that amount. The workers who really do need the compensation may wonder if they can afford the help of a wage & hour attorney, but in any wage & hour claim, one of the damages that may be able to be sought is for attorney fees. Most lawyers charge on a contingency fee basis, so you won’t have to pay any money upfront, and you may be able to recover more in damages than you know!

The Statute Of Limitations

Depending on the circumstances, if you suspect that you have been wronged by your employer and denied your rightful pay, you have three years to file a claim for damages. The statute of limitations in California is for wage & hour claims is technically 1 year for claims related to bounced checks or payroll issues, 2 years for verbal agreements in excess of minimum wage, 3 years for unpaid minimum wage, unpaid overtime, unpaid breaks and sick leave, unpaid reimbursements (the damages discussed in this article), and 4 years when a written contract is involved. If you miss the statute of limitations, you will likely be unable to recover damages at all, which is why it is important to contact a California wage & hour lawyer immediately to discuss your options.

Call Southern California Attorneys, A.P.C. For A Free Consultation!

The damages discussed in this wage & hour blog post are general, but to find out what damages YOU could recover in a wage & hour lawsuit, please contact our knowledgeable, multilingual attorney team at Southern California Attorneys, A.P.C.! We have over 60 years of combined legal experience on our side, and we’ve recovered significant amounts of compensation for our clients. Schedule your free, confidential consultation today!

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