Wage Theft in California: Your Rights


Wage theft is all too common in California, and it is also against the law – but a dedicated California wage theft attorney can help. If your California employer fails to pay you in accordance with the law, it is considered wage theft, and there are legal protections in place that can help. The intentional theft of wages by employers is a serious problem in California and across the nation, and the financial effects can be devastating. While employer wage theft cases tend to be complicated, protecting your rights and your wages is paramount, and an experienced California wage theft attorney is standing by to help.

What Is Wage Theft?

At its most basic, wage theft refers to when an employer intentionally fails to pay an employee the amount they are owed. When you work for an employer, you are legally entitled to fair compensation, and California has careful laws in place that address this matter. California defines wage theft as failing to pay workers in accordance with the law, and they provide a long list of relevant examples that include:

  • When employees are paid less than the minimum wage
  • When employees are not paid bonuses or do not receive vacation pay as promised
  • When employees don’t receive wages that were agreed upon with their employers, including overtime on commissions, on the piece rate, or on normal wages
  • When employers take a share of their employees’ tips
  • When employees are not allowed to take the meal breaks, rest breaks, or preventative rest breaks that are required by law
  • When employees are not allowed to accrue or to use paid sick leave
  • When employees are not paid bonuses or do not receive vacations as promised
  • When employees are not paid premiums for split shifts
  • When employers take unauthorized deductions from their employees’ paychecks
  • When employees’ paychecks bounce
  • When employers fail to reimburse employees for legitimate business expenses
  • When employers fail to pay timely final wages
  • When employers fail to provide timely access to either payroll records or personnel files
  • When employees do not receive reporting time pay

If any of these apply to your situation, your employer may be engaging in wage theft, and seeking professional legal guidance is well advised.

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A Recent California Law

California recently passed a law that criminalizes intentional wage theft and applies to employers of all sizes. As such, an individual owner, a managing executive, or a manager of a business can personally face criminal charges related to wage theft. Further, the law establishes a grand theft threshold. If an employer is found to have engaged in more than $950 in wage theft from an individual employee or more than $2,350 from 2 or more employees over a 12-month period, they can face criminal charges of grand theft that come with serious legal consequences. This law extends its reach to employers of independent contractors, such as workers in the ever-expanding gig economy.

Employers can face up to one year in jail if the grand theft charge is brought as a misdemeanor and up to three years in prison if it’s brought as a felony, and there are also considerable fines imposed. California takes employer wage theft exceptionally seriously, and employers should, too.

The Minimum Wage

California’s imposed minimum wage is higher than anywhere else in the nation other than Washington, D.C., and New York City. The minimum wage that employers who have fewer than 26 employees must pay throughout the state is currently $14 an hour, but this minimum will rise to $15.50 an hour for all employers on January 1, 2023. Employers of 26 or more employees are currently required to pay a minimum of $15 an hour. Some California cities and counties impose their own minimum wages, but they must exceed those set by the state. The minimum wage applies to almost all employees in California. Some of the very few exceptions include:

  • Outside salespeople
  • The parent, spouse, or child of the employer
  • Apprentices under the State Division of Apprenticeship Standards

There is also an exception for employees who are learning their jobs – with no previous related or similar experience – that requires payment at 85 percent of the minimum wage (rounded to the nearest nickel) during the first 160 hours on the job.

The Matter of Overtime

In California, overtime pay is a legal requirement. The general overtime rules apply to all nonexempt employees – employees who make less than a specific yearly amount and are, therefore, not considered salaried – and they include:

  • Nonexempt employees are entitled to time-and-a-half pay for work that exceeds eight hours in any workday.
  • Nonexempt employees are entitled to time-and-a-half pay for work that exceeds 40 hours in any workweek.

Additionally, employees are entitled to double pay in the following situations:

  • Nonexempt employees are entitled to double pay when they work more than 12 hours on any given workday.
  • Nonexempt employees are entitled to double pay when they work more than eight hours on the seventh consecutive day of a workweek – and are entitled to time-and-a-half pay for the first eight hours on the seventh consecutive day of a workweek.

Your Tips Belong to You

In California, tips are the sole property of the employee to whom they are given or are intended to be given. It doesn’t matter if a person hands you a tip directly or leaves a tip for you – it belongs to you. California employers are legally barred from taking any portion of tips that are left for servers, and doing so amounts to theft. This is true in spite of the fact that tips are your property and are not actually wages. As such, it is important to consider the following:

  • In California, tips cannot be deducted from your minimum wage per hour. For example, if you receive an average of $10 an hour in tips, it in no way affects your minimum wage requirement.
  • California employers are required to pay servers the minimum wage regardless of whether or not they receive tips.
  • California employers cannot charge employees a service or processing fee for tips that are left for them on credit cards

Tips are generally left to the sole discretion of customers, and they are classified as gratuities, not wages, which means they do not affect the overtime calculation process. It is important to note, however, that the IRS treats most tips as taxable income.

Tip Pooling

California does allow what is known as tip pooling, which means employers can require servers to share their tips with other employees under certain circumstances. Tip pooling amounts to pooling all or some of the tips received by servers and distributing them fairly and responsibly according to a predetermined formula that is in accordance with state laws, including:

  • The tip pool consists of employees only
  • The tip pool is funded with tips given to these employees
  • The tip pool excludes the employer and any agents of the employer from receiving tips

An agent of the employer in this context is anyone who has the authority to hire or fire the employees in the tip pool or who supervises, directs, or controls what the employees in the tip pool do on the job. A manager is allowed to benefit from the tip pool if they share in the same tasks that the non-agent employees do. All employees who are in what is considered the chain of service are eligible to participate in the tip pool. While servers, hosts, bartenders, and bussers are typically considered links in the chain of service to customers, cooks, cashiers, and dishwashers are not.

Tip Violations

If your employer engages in wage theft in the form of withholding tips, the legal path forward is somewhat different. Instead of filing an unpaid wage claim, you’ll likely proceed with a claim for conversion based on the fact that your tips are your sole property and are not classified as wages. In other words, it’s complicated, and having the professional legal guidance of a seasoned California unpaid wages attorney in your corner is in the best interest of your claim.

What Is the Wage Theft Prevention Act?

California’s Wage Theft Prevention Act of 2011 (WTPA) has been in effect since January 1, 2012, and it requires all employers to provide every nonexempt employee with specific information regarding their pay and benefits in the form of a written notice. All the following requirements apply:

  • The notice must be written in the same language that the employer normally employs when sharing employment-related information with employees.
  • The notice must be provided to employees at the time an employee is hired and within seven days of any changes in terms of pay or benefits occurring.
  • The notice must outline the employee’s pay rate, work schedule, regular payday, overtime compensation, and more.

The purpose of the notice is to help ensure that employees are fully aware of the wage rates and specifics that apply to them at the job in question.


The answers to some of the questions that employees ask most frequently in relation to WTPA may help you with some of your own.

What is the goal of the WTPA?

The WTPA is designed to provide employees with more robust protections and to help ensure that they receive basic information regarding their employment in a timely manner.

To whom does the WTPA apply?

All employers in the private sector must adhere to the WTPA unless a specific exception applies.

What requirements are included?

Employers are required to provide every employee with specific work-related information in writing, including:

  • Their rate of pay and whether they are paid by the hour, shift, day, week, piece, salary, commission, or otherwise
  • Any work allowances
  • The regular payday as designated by the employer and as required by state law
  • The employer’s name, including any doing business as designation
  • The physical address and mailing address of the employer’s main office or primary place of business
  • The employer’s telephone number
  • The contact information for the employer’s workers’ compensation insurance provider

Can an employee waive the notice requirement?

No, state law requires all employers to follow all WTPA requirements, and none of them are subject to waiver.

What if the only change is a pay increase?

If the only change is a change in pay – and the change is an increase – no notice is required as long as the new rate is clearly represented on the next pay stub or itemized wage statement.

What about employees who are covered by a union contract?

Generally, those employees who are under a valid union agreement that directly addresses the matters addressed by the WTPA do not require written notice from the employer because their pay, overtime, and additional considerations are addressed in the union agreement.

What is a wage theft notice?

The wage theft notice is the name of this written notice that employers are required to provide their employees upon hire and in relation to any changes in wages or benefits. Generally, employers turn to the state’s wage theft notice template to produce their wage theft notice but doing so is not a requirement as long as the notice provided by the employer includes everything covered in the template to the same degree of specificity.

An Experienced California Wage Theft Attorney Is on Your Side

The savvy wage theft attorneys at Blair & Ramirez LLP in Los Angeles take great pride in their impressive track record of helping clients like you obtain the pay to which they are entitled. Wage theft is a crime that should not be tolerated, and as an employee in California, you are protected. To help you better understand your rights and the relevant specifics of your case, we offer a free case evaluator. To learn more, please don’t wait to reach out and contact or call us at 213-568-4000 today.