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How to File a Complaint Against an Employer in California

Camila Lopez - California Small Claims - March 2, 2023

Start by sending a demand letter to your employer.

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    Is your employer not paying you what they promised? As the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg pointed out in one of her last great dissents in the case of Epic Sys. Corp. v. Lewis, low-wage workers lose nearly $3 billion in legally owed wages each year in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City alone. Remember, just because your employer or the human resources department tells you that they won’t pay you doesn't mean that they are legally correct.

    This article outlines several ways to file a complaint against a California employer for not paying you: 

    • How to file a complaint with the California Labor Commissioner’s Office against your employer when your employer doesn't pay you. 

    • How to file a small claims lawsuit against your employer for non-payment if you are owed $10,000 or less. 

    California Department of Industrial Relations & the Labor Commissioner's Office

    What is the California Department of Industrial Relations & the Labor Commissioner’s Office?

    The California Department of Industrial Relations is a government agency that regulates the relationship between employees and employers in California. It houses the Labor Commissioner’s Office.  

    Here are some examples of areas that the Labor Commissioner’s Office regulates:

    • wages

    • determine eligibility for paid sick leave

    • protect workers from wage theft

    • investigate employee complaints, and 

    • enforce the rules employers have to follow.

    What types of complaints does the California Labor Commissioner’s Office handle?  

    The Labor Commissioner’s Office handles a broad range of complaints against employers. Here are some examples:

    • When an employer fails to pay wages owed.

    • When an employer fails to keep your workplace safe.

    • When you think an employer is taking advantage of young or elderly workers.

    • When you think your employer has improperly classified you as exempt from overtime laws.

    • When an employer has denied you pay for required breaks.

    • When your employer makes you work through paid breaks. 

    Remember, just because your boss or human resources department has denied your claim doesn't mean that your employer acted legally. It is up to the California Labor Commissioner’s Office to decide whether you are owed unpaid wages.

    Examples of Wage Theft

    Wage Theft comes in many different forms. The California Labor Commissioner’s Office, along with several advocacy groups, have published guides describing the many different forms wage theft can come in. Here are some examples:

    The California Labor Commissioner’s Office also maintains an extensive FAQ and can be reached at local offices throughout the state. 

    How to File a Complaint for non-payment with the California Labor Commissioner’s Office

    Step 1: Gather Documents to Support your wage theft claim, including:

    • Time records you kept of the hours and dates worked that support the claim.

    • Paychecks and pay stubs showing the wages paid during the claim period.

    • Bounced paychecks during the claim period.

    • Notice of employment information (under Labor Code Section 2810.5, a notice from the employer that employees may have received after January 1, 2012, which indicates the employee’s basic employment information including rate of pay, any overtime rate of pay, whether the employee was paid by the hour, shift, day, week, salary, piece, commission, or otherwise, and the regular payday)

    • Collective Bargaining Agreement (if a union contract covered your employment).

    Step 2: Fill out a DLSE WCA Form 1 (Also available in Spanish).

    Step 3: Submit the Evidence (step 1) and Form 1 (step 2) to your local District office.

    Step 4: Based on the evidence you present, a hearing officer may:

    • Refer the claim to a conference, where you and your employer will try to resolve the dispute informally and not under oath with the hearing office.

    • Refer the claim to a hearing, where a hearing officer will ascertain whether the employer owes you any money and will issue an Order, Decision, or Award accordingly.

    • Dismiss the claim (close the claim). 

    Here is a more detailed overview of the process and another step by step guide

    How to sue your employer in California Small Claims Court

    If your wage claim is for $10,000 or less, then you also have the option of suing your employer for non-payment in California small claims court.

    Make sure to review your contract for any requirements before filing a small claims lawsuit (keep an eye out for mandatory arbitration clauses).  

    What are steps to suing your employer in California small claims? 

    1. Demand payment (you can do this by sending a demand letter to your employer).

    2. Prepare the California small claims lawsuit (Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court (SC-100)).

    3. File the small claims lawsuit.

    4. Notify your employer that they have been sued. This is called serving

    5. Prepare your evidence and attend the hearing. Learn more here

    How much does it cost to sue your employer in California small claims court? 

    The amount you will pay to file a small claims lawsuit in California depends on how much you are suing for. You will pay between $30 to $75 to file the lawsuit. If you cannot afford court fees, you can ask the court to waive the fees. 

    You may also need to pay to notify your employer that they have been sued, this is called serving. This can range between $0- $85. 

    California Small Claims Frequently Asked Questions 

    • Do I need a lawyer to go to court? No, in fact, California does not allow lawyers to represent you at the initial small claims hearing.

    • What are small claims hearings like in California? The hearings are quick and, on average, are 10-15 minutes. Learn more here.

    • How long does small claims take? A court usually schedules the small claims hearing no later than 30-60 days from filing the lawsuit. Learn more here.


    Camila Lopez

    Legal Educator @ People Clerk. Camila holds a law degree and is a certified mediator. Her passion is breaking down complicated legal processes so that people without an attorney can get justice.

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