[COLUMN] Do employees have remedies for claims too small to file in court?

  1. I WORK for a company that shorts us on pay, nothing big, like 15 minutes of overtime two to three time per week and breaks that are not provided once or twice a week. Many of my coworkers experience the same thing but shrug it off saying the back wages are too small to sue on, and complaining will probably get us fired. I get it. But still it is unfair that we are donating free labor to a company that could easily afford to pay us correctly. Do we have any remedies?
  2. Yes, you do. You, personally, can file a class action, and/or make a claim under the Private Attorney General Act (PAGA) on behalf of yourself and your co-workers. Class actions and PAGA claims are collective actions where one employee can make a claim not only for him- or herself, but also on behalf of fellow employees who experienced the same employment violations.

It is true that there are valid overtime or meal break claims that may be too small to require a lawsuit. The litigation may cost too much and the payoff for one employee may not be worth the problem. However, an employer’s wage violations should be stopped, especially if it affects other employees. Hence, employees who experience the same labor violations may assert their rights as a group by filing a class action in court.

A PAGA claim is especially unique to California. This law was enacted to maximize compliance with California’s labor laws. Instead of the State of California pursuing penalties against an employer, the law gives a private citizen the right to recover these penalties. It allows a private citizen to act as an attorney general and seek to stop violations that other current or former employees suffered.

Filing a collective action minimizes the risk of retaliation against an employee member of the class. The employee who sued may stand for other employees who are not named in the lawsuit so that they can also recover their wages.

A collective action is also a relatively inexpensive way to resolve wage claims that may be costly if pursued only as an individual action. Employees or class members do not pay out-of-pocket fees to attorneys. It is only upon the resolution of the class action and after court approval that the attorneys are paid for their work.

As for the argument that the uncompensated time is “too small,” California law mandates that employees should be paid “for all hours worked.” Hours worked means “the time during which an employee is subject to the control of an employer, and includes all the time the employee is suffered or permitted to work, whether or not required to do so.” Whether it is 5 minutes or 5 hours, if it is work time, it should be paid.

One should not immediately dismiss an employer’s seemingly minor violation as insubstantial. A few extra minutes of unpaid work each day can add up. In this case, 30 minutes of unpaid overtime per week translates to 26 hours of unpaid time per year. If one is paid $15 per hour, then the uncompensated amount is $585 per year. A missed break must be paid an extra hour at the employee’s regular rate. So two missed breaks per week results in $1,560 of owed missed breaks premium per year. Thus, the employee is owed $2,145 of unpaid wages per year. For ordinary workers, that is not an insubstantial amount.

An employer should have no excuse in failing to compensate employees for all their work time. It is unfair (not to mention illegal) for employers to accept the benefits of the work performed by its employees and not pay the wages due to them. A class action or a PAGA action is one avenue by which employees may obtain justice, and hopefully, back wages..

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The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit www.joesayaslaw.com. [For more than 25 years, C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, consistently selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is a past Presidential Awardee for Outstanding Filipino Overseas.]

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