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Private Attorneys General Act

The California Labor Code imposes hundreds of laws on employers. These laws cover your basic rights, such as meal and rest breaks, minimum wage, and overtime. They also include dozens of more obscure provisions, such as how often you receive a paycheck, when you may take time off to attend your child’s school functions, and whether you can be required to take a polygraph test.

If your employer doesn’t pay you overtime or provide a meal break, you can file a complaint in court or with the Labor Commissioner. You can recover unpaid wages and other penalties that the Labor Code specifically provides employees.

Employers also face civil penalties when they violate the Labor Code. Civil penalties are generally collected by the State, not by employees. The State’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency, or LWDA, may investigate employers who break the law repeatedly or on a wide scale. It may order changes to the employers’ practices and require that they pay civil penalties. Not every violation of the Labor Code creates a private right of action where wronged employees can collect damages. But most violations can result in civil penalties.

Like all government agencies, the LWDA can only do so much. Its time and resources are limited. The Private Attorneys General Act, or PAGA, allows an individual employee to step in and carry out the enforcement functions of the LWDA. This allows better enforcement of the Labor Code. To incentivize employees to fulfill this role, PAGA allows employees to collect up to 25% of the civil penalties that result from a PAGA action. The remaining 75% of penalties helps fund the LWDA.

The PAGA process is complicated. Before you can file a claim for PAGA penalties, you must alert the LWDA to any violations of the Labor Code. You must also give your employer notice of your complaint. In some cases, your employer is allowed a few weeks to correct the violations before you are eligible to collect penalties. In all cases, the LWDA may choose to investigate your complaint itself, in which case you will likely be ineligible to collect a portion of the penalties. An experienced employment attorney can help you successfully navigate PAGA. The employment lawyers of Spencer Young Law in Oakland are experts in the California Labor Code and the ins and outs of PAGA.

Civil penalties vary based on which law has been violated. Generally, the penalties range from $50 to $200 per violation. A “violation” means that one employee has been harmed during one pay period because their employer violated one employment law. In other words, when more employees are harmed over a longer period of time, there have been more violations. These employees are called aggrieved employees, and are eligible to share the 25% of civil penalties that may be awarded in a PAGA case.

  • Example 1: Miracle Sound Systems in Martinez employs 50 hourly workers to assemble amplifiers and speakers. In March and April, all hourly employees have been paid two weeks later than their regularly-scheduled pay days, which are twice a month. There has been one violation per employee per pay period, so there are at least 200 violations for which the employer may be required to pay civil penalties.
  • Example 2: TechRide in San Francisco is a transportation company that employs 1,000 “gig workers” throughout California to provide on-demand rides to customers. TechRide has classified all of its drivers as independent contractors even though, by law, they should be classified as employees. These workers have been misclassified for the entire year of 2020. According to their “contracts,” the workers are to be paid once a week. There have been at least 52,000 violations in 2019 for which TechRide may be required to pay civil penalties.

PAGA claims can add value to your personal employment law claims. They can also hold your employer accountable on a larger scale, help your coworkers, support the State’s ability to enforce the Labor Code. Before you file a wage claim with the Labor Commissioner, consult with the knowledgeable PAGA attorneys at Spencer Young Law to determine if you should pursue PAGA claims as well. Call today for your free consultation!

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