Wages, Overtime and Breaks: Understanding the Power of the California Labor Commissioner

The Labor Commissioner, part of the California Department of Industrial Relations, is responsible for enforcing California’s wage and hour laws, including minimum wage laws and wage theft, such as failure to pay overtime. Though not all employees realize they can make individual complaints to the Labor Commissioner, more are discovering its power to help them recoup lost wages and enforce workplace protections.

If an employee’s check is missing worked hours or overtime pay, good employers will correct the error and include the funds in the employee’s following paycheck. After all, sometimes mistakes occur, vacation or sick time is calculated improperly, etc., especially at employers relying solely on a paper-based system. Unfortunately, not all employers fit this category. That’s when the Labor Commissioner’s Office comes into play.

For example, all wages owed to an employee are due at the time of termination. If they are not paid promptly, the employer faces waiting time penalties, which accrue quickly, by calendar days rather than business days, and which go to the employee. Employers can be sanctioned the average daily wage for each day the employer is late, up to a maximum of 30 days’ pay. This is a fine, not wages, and employers may not withhold taxes from such payments. These fines also apply to earned, accrued and unused vacation time that has not been paid.

Where there are pay violations, there are often simultaneous meal and rest break violations. These fines also mount quickly. Employers can be fined $50 for the first incident and $100 per incident after that, i.e., for each meal or break missed. Overtime violations are even more costly. In all instances, inability to pay is not a defense.

Even without an individual or class action suit filed by employees, such violations of state law are expensive. Employers need to pay close attention to ensure they are complying with all state wage and hour laws. If an employee feels they have been subject to a violation, they should first address the issue with their employer. If that does not resolve the matter, he or she should file a complaint with the Labor Commission. Instructions can be found at their website