San Francisco Unpaid Wages Lawyer

Unlawful Wage and Break Practices

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and its associated regulations set minimum standards regarding wages, hours, and other labor practices for employers throughout the United States. In addition, the California Labor Code imposes many additional requirements on employers that are more protective than federal law. Indeed, California’s wage and hour laws are among the most employee-friendly in the nation, and the obligations California employers owe to their employees are detailed and complex. California’s wage and break laws govern all aspects of an employee’s time at work, from overtime and minimum wages, to vacation and reporting time pay, to meal and rest breaks.

Unpaid Wages

It is a violation of California’s labor laws for an employer to fail to pay wages in a timely manner, including commissions and bonuses owed to workers. An employee who is owed regular wages (whether commission pay, bonus or incentive pay, piece rate pay, or hourly pay) can bring an action to recover those wages, plus attorneys’ fees and costs, under California Labor Code § 218.5.


Employees in California must be paid the applicable minimum wage as required by state or local law. As of 2019, the minimum wage in California was $12 per hour, and it is scheduled to increase gradually until it reaches $15.00 per hour in 2022. Some localities also impose a higher minimum wage obligation on employers. In San Francisco, for example, the minimum wage was $15.59 per hour in 2019, and increases annually.

Further, in California, employees must be paid the minimum wage for each hour they work. Unlike federal law, the California Labor Code does not permit the averaging of total compensation over total hours worked in a given pay period to satisfy minimum wage obligations.


Federal law requires the payment of overtime (at a rate of one-and-one-half times an employee’s normal pay rate or “time and a half”) after forty hours of work in a week. California’s overtime laws are generally more favorable for employees than federal laws or the laws of other states. In addition to being entitled to overtime pay after working forty hours per week, employers must generally pay workers at an overtime rate for any hours worked over 8 hours per day. California workers are also entitled to double-time pay (i.e. twice their regular rate of pay) after twelve hours per day or after eight hours on the seventh workday in a week.

Meal and Rest Breaks

Generally, if an employee works more than 5 hours per day, the employer must provide an uninterrupted 30-minute meal break relieved of all duty—that is, the employee is not permitted to perform any work duties while on break. The employer must also permit ten-minute rest breaks for every 4 hours of work (or major fraction thereof). Although it is not an employer’s duty to police its employees to ensure they are performing no work during their breaks, if your employer does not permit you to take a daily meal break in your first five hours of work or does not authorize two ten-minute rest breaks in a normal eight hour shift, you may have a claim for meal and rest break violations. Further, California employees who are not provided with lawful meal or rest breaks are entitled to “premium payments” – one hour of pay for each break missed.  If you are a California employee who lacks a mechanism for reporting missed breaks or has reported missed breaks but has not been paid premium payments, you may have a meal or rest break claim under the California Labor Code.

Some employers also impose so-called on-duty meal period agreements on their employees, by which employees agree to take their meal periods on duty. Such agreements may be unenforceable, particularly where the nature of the work does not require an on-duty meal period.


Employees must be paid for all overtime or other hours that they are suffered or permitted to work, even if the employer does not formally authorize the work. Sometimes, an employer may unlawfully direct or permit its workers to work unreported overtime “off-the-clock.” For example, in a highly publicized case involving a “big box” retailer, hourly employees had been assigned a certain number of duties that had to be completed within their 8-hour shift. If the duties could not be completed in that period, employees were told that they had to finish on their own time—a practice constituting unlawful “off-the-clock” work.

Moreover, time spent donning or doffing protective equipment, or waiting in security lines before or after a work shift, may be compensable under California law, even when that time may not be compensable under federal law.


If an employer requires an employee to report for work for less than half of his regularly scheduled hours, the employer must pay the employee for one-half of his normally scheduled workday (at least 2 hours but not more than 4 hours).


An employer with a public works contract with a California governing body must pay its workers the prevailing wage, which is a minimum wage set by the Department of Industrial Relations. In addition, some cities and counties have living wage ordinances that require county vendors to pay higher than minimum wages to their employees.


Except in limited circumstances, an employer may not deduct from an employee’s wages any monies the employee owes to the employer. Instead, the employer is required to seek payment using the same procedures as any other creditor of the employee.


California and federal hourly employees are entitled to the wage and break protections described above, as are salaried employees unless they qualify as exempt from overtime under a few narrow exemptions for “white collar” employees and commissioned salespersons. The so-called “white collar” exemptions apply only to certain managerial, administrative, and professional employees who exercise substantial discretion and independent judgment in the performance of their jobs.

Regardless of whether you are an hourly or salaried worker, however, certain wage and hour protections apply to all California employees’ employment, including the following:


An employer may not have a “use it or lose it” plan whereby employees lose vacation days they have already earned if those days are not used within a particular year.


Employers must pay employees for all hours worked and any unused and unpaid vacation hours upon termination of employment. An employer’s failure to do so may subject it to significant “waiting time penalties” that dwarf the amount of unpaid wages. For example, because the assessment of waiting time penalties is tied to the employee’s regular rate of pay, and not the amount of unpaid wages, the failure to pay a highly compensated employee just a few dollars in owed wages at the conclusion of employment could result in significant waiting time penalties pursuant to Labor Code § 203. This is also where severance pay would come into the discussion, if applicable.