How do California workers get their money back?

California law allows workers several ways to accuse employers of wage theft and to open a case for recovering alleged losses. The vast majority of claims are made by individual workers in an administrative hearing system run by the Department of Industrial Relations’ Labor Commissioner’s Office. In theory it’s intended to be a quick, inexpensive, accessible way to resolve complaints without needing to go to court, with opportunities to settle each step along the way. 

–Filing a complaint with the Bureau of Field Enforcement. The bureau, which also falls under the Labor Commissioner, conducts larger investigations of workplaces and issues citations or brings suits against employers that it says committed wage theft. The bureau relies on complaints and testimony from workers. Unlike the individual wage claims, these cases tend to be worksite-wide, and the bureau targets specific industries, some of which were picked by the Legislature.

–Filing a lawsuit. A worker can file a private lawsuit against the employer for labor law violations. This is relatively rare, because it involves the worker hiring an attorney. If a worker finds a lawyer willing to take it on, the worker also can file suit under the state’s Private Attorney General Act, which lets a worker sue the employer on behalf of the state. This takes the burden off the state to conduct its own investigation of every complaint, and the worker could represent all coworkers without having to get a judge to deem it a class action.

–Seeking federal action by the U.S. Department of Labor. An employee must allege that federal labor laws were violated. The employee may file a wage-and-hour complaint with the regional offices in Fresno, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, Orange County, Walnut Creek, San Jose, West Covina or Ontario.