California labor law is a complex system of regulations governing the affairs, rights and obligations of over 18 million wage workers and their employers throughout the state. Labor law is outlined in the California Labor Code. Authority begins with the governor’s office where Governor Edmund Brown presides over his cabinet, of which the Labor and Workforce Development Agency is part.

The mission of the Labor and Workforce Development Agency is to lead, protect and improve the well-being of the California workforce. One of its main function is to enforce California labor laws. To do so, it oversees workforce programs by coordinating the work of seven boards and departments including the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, the California Employment Development Department, and the Department of Industrial Relations.

The Role of the Department of Industrial Relations

In order to understand California labor laws, it’s important to understand that the bulk of the organizing for wage earners throughout the state is handled by the Department of Industrial Relations. This department is responsible for ensuring that wage earners each are treated fairly and paid adequately and on time. The Department is also responsible for the health and safety of workers as well as the economic well-being of the labor law system in California.

The Department is primarily concerned with the working conditions of wage earners. It has a particular mandate to address the underground economy and targets violations of laws therein. Most importantly, it administers and enforces the laws in the California Labor Code including those governing compensation, wages, working conditions, employment relations, workers’ compensation for injured workers and health and safety in the workplace.

The California Labor Code

The California Labor Code is broken down into several sections each addressing specific aspects of the state employment systems. Compensation, wages and working conditions is covered early on in the code and provides guidance on the ways that workers are paid as well well as on employer-employee interactions.

Next, the Code expands on employment relations providing guidance on work hours, employment contracts, employer-employee obligations and outlining rules for termination and discharge. The law also covers worker’s compensations and address employment compensation concerns as well as health and safety issues.

Compensation, Wages and Working Conditions

When issues arise concerning compensation, wages, and working conditions, the California Labor Code is the chief authority for most workers. Under the code, employers are required to keep notice of paydays posted. The paydays for most wage workers must occur twice in each month, but specific types of workers, such as domestic workers or workers with weekly paydays, are excepted.

According to Section 1197, employers must pay at least the minimum wage set by the Labor Commission. Current minimum wage in California is $8.00 per hour. If an employer fails to pay at least minimum wage, the employer is engaging in unlawful behavior and is subject to a civil penalty, restitution of wages, and must pay liquidated damages to the aggrieved employee.

Under Sections 96 and 98b of the Labor Code, a wage worker has the right to file a claim for lost or unpaid wages with the Labor Commissioner. These include several claims types such as wage claims and mechanics’ liens. Section 96 also provides for the following claims types:

  • “stop orders” for wages
  • damages for misrepresentations of employment conditions
  • penalties for nonpayment
  • return of worker’s tools
  • vacation pay, severance pay or other compensation
  • workers’ compensation benefit awards
  • loss of wages due to discharge
  • loss of wages due to demotion, suspension or discharge for lawful conduct

Filing a claim for any of these issues can be done online through the Department of Industrial Relations’ website. Each claim outlines specific rights for aggrieved workers.

It is important to note a few details about the claims for loss of wages due to demotions, suspension or discharge for lawful conduct. These particular issues been recently adjudicated in two important cases. Courts have ruled that the provision does not provide any new public policy exceptions to the employee at-will doctrine.

For instance, courts did not allow a claim of loss of wages under the provision when an employee was discharged due to her relationship with a subordinate employee in Barbee v. Household Automotive Finance Corp., 113 Cal. App. 4th 525 (2003). However, it is clear that courts will uphold claims under the provision if the reason for termination is supported by the state constitution or other provisions in the California Labor Code.

At times, employers fail to adequately compensate employees in violation of the California labor laws. For example, according to Section 201, when an employer discharges an employee, any wages still unpaid at the time of discharge are due immediately. Section 202 also notes that employees who quit without an employment contract in place are entitled to unpaid wages no later than 72 hours after quitting. (If the employer has advanced notice of the quitting, the wages are due at the time of quitting.)

The law also makes provision for the manner in which unpaid wages should be calculated and paid at the end of an employer-employee relationship. When an employer fails to pay, the unpaid wages accrue as a penalty for the next 30 days. An employee has the right to sue for the penalty any time before the statute of limitations runs for the claim. Once a suit is filed, investigated and determined by the Labor Commission to be valid, an employer has 10 days from the date of notice to pay the claim.

In addition to the accrual of wages, civil penalties can also be due when an employer fails to pay unpaid wages. Section 210 provides that the Labor Commissioner will collect $100 for each employee for the initial violation and $200 per employee for subsequent violations or intentional or willful failures to pay with an additional 25 percent of the amount withheld added to the total amount due.

Working Conditions under California Labor laws

The Labor Code also addresses certain working conditions. Section 226.7(b) requires an employer to grant employees any rest period or meal break that is mandated by the state without requiring work during those time periods. If the mandated rest or meal break is not provided, the employer must grant an employee an additional hour of compensation for every break lost.

The law also prevents an employer from discharging, discriminating or retaliating against any employee for certain reasons as follows:

  • serving jury duty,
  • for taking time off for attending court as a victim of crime, or
  • for taking time off to obtain relief according to the law from domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault.

Each of these occurrences requires that an employee give reasonable notice when feasible. When giving notice is not possible, an employee can produce certification to prove the reason for the absence such as a court order, police report or documentation from a licensed medical professional. Also, under California labor laws, victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking are entitled to reasonable accommodations to ensure their safety while at work, upon request from an employee willing to disclose they need such accommodation.

When discharge or discrimination does occur for reasons noted in the Code, employees are entitled to reinstatement and reimbursement for lost wages. Affected employees can file a claim for these with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement through the Department of Industrial Relations.

It also important to note that the California Labor Code requires that all wages in the state be sufficient enough to supply the cost of proper living, and that the hours or conditions of labor be non-prejudicial to the health, morals, or welfare of employees.

Employment Relations: Contracts and Obligations

California labor laws also address employment relations in terms of employment contracts. In Section 2750, the Code establishes rebuttable presumptions concerning the status of a worker as an independent contractor (rather than an employee) when certain conditions are met. For instance, there is a rebuttable presumption that those whose services require a license are considered employees rather than independent contractors.

Section 2800 of the Code ensures that employees will not be responsible for injuries and losses that occur on the job as a result of an employer’s lack of ordinary care. This means that employers are responsible for taking reasonable precautions to prevent losses and injuries. The Code also requires employers who provide medical benefits to employees to also provide conversion coverage as well as to provide notice of any conversion coverage available.

According to Section 2850, in the absence of an employment contract, employees are at least required to provide their services with “slight care and diligence.” When an employment contract is in place, an employee must use a higher standard, that of “ordinary care and diligence,” in performing services. The Code also requires an employee to “substantially comply” with all the directions of his or her employer unless doing so would be unlawful.

Worker’s Compensation and Insurance

California Labor laws also address compensation for injuries at work and insurance to cover such injuries. Under its workers’ compensation sections, the Code says that ‘injury’ includes any injury or disease arising from employment. These injuries can be either specific or cumulative, meaning they are a series of injuries occurring over time.

The main California labor law concerning workers’ compensation is found in Section 3600. This section states the conditions necessary for an employee to successfully claim workers’ compensation. The law states that an employer could be held liable for any injury arising out of employment and for the death of an employee if the injury “proximately causes” death. These conditions are met without regard to negligence.

The first three conditions in Section 3600 list the basic elements necessary to prove a workers’ compensation claim. At the time of the injury:

  1. both employer and employer must be covered by the compensation provisions noted in California labor laws,
  2. the employee must be performing services “growing out of and incidental to” his or her job and must be “acting within the course of employment,” and
  3. there must be proximate causation between the injury and the employment activity, without regard to negligence.

It is important to note there are a number of situations outlined in section 3600 in which an employee would not have a successful worker’s compensation claim. For example, an employer would not be liable for compensation when the injury is caused by intoxication or the illegal use of drugs, when the injury is intentionally self-inflicted or in situations where the employee is the initial physical aggressor.

Also, the employer is not responsible for compensating injuries that come as a result of off-duty recreational, social or athletic activities. This is true unless those injuries “are a reasonable expectancy of, or are expressly or impliedly required by, the employment.” In other words, an employer is only responsible for compensating injuries that arise from recreational, social or athletic activities that are are part of an employee’s job duties.

According to Section 3700, all employers are required to compensate injured workers by being insured with a workers’ compensation insurance provider or by being self-insured. When an employer elects to self-insure, the employer must first obtain a certification from the Department of Industrial Relations. It may do so by providing satisfactory proof to the Director of its ability to provide compensation that may become due.

Safety and Employment Under California Labor Laws

Section 6400 of the California Labor Code states that every employer must provide a safe and healthy work environment for employees. In addition, employers must provided safety protection and have “reasonably adequate” safety measures in place to protect workers from hazards and injury.

One important requirement is that each employer put in place a written injury prevention program. This program must include occupational health and safety training at the beginning of the program and for each new employee, for employees receiving new job assignments and any time a new hazardous substance or instrument is used in the course of employment. For employers who employ seasonal workers, a Model Injury and Illness Prevention Program is available through the Department of Industrial Relations.

All workers’ compensation insurers are required to review an employer’s injury and illness prevention program (IIPP) within six months of commencing the insurance policy. This ensures that the employer is following all the provisions, instructions and dictates of its IIPP.

Section 6404.5 of the Code addresses the issue of tobacco smoking in the workplace. The law states that no employer shall allow smoking in an enclosed place of employment, including “lobbies, lounges, waiting areas, elevators, stairwells, and restrooms.” Spaces not designated as places of employment are relegated to the authority of local laws.

Understanding California Labor Laws

California labor laws are a complex system of rules and regulations addressing a variety of employer-employee issues. Knowledge of key points and provisions can be an important asset for employees and employers alike. Additionally, knowing what the law states on important employment issues is critical to any employment dispute. For thorough guidance and assistance in understanding California labor laws, turn to Shegerian & Associates. Our qualified attorneys are here to help with all you labor law needs.