New California Minimum Wage Laws for 2021
If you’re an employee, in most cases there’s a minimum amount that your employer must pay you. That amount is called the “minimum wage.”
The issue of raising the minimum wage has become a hot topic across the country.
Advocates for raising the minimum wage argue that everyone should be able to earn a living wage — that is, an amount that’s enough to meet basic needs like food and housing. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 is well below this amount, and it hasn’t increased in over a decade.
But many state and local governments have started to act and now require a much higher minimum wage. That includes the state of California, and many local jurisdictions within California.
If your employer is subject to different local, state, and federal minimum wage laws, it must pay you the highest minimum wage required by law. That means in California, your employer must pay you the higher state minimum wage. And if your employer is subject to a local minimum wage that’s higher than the state minimum wage, your employer must pay you the higher local wage.
In California, the minimum wage you’re entitled to often depends on the size of your employer. There are also several exceptions to California’s minimum wage laws. Here’s what you need to know about your rights.
What’s the minimum wage in California?
As of January 1, 2021, the minimum wage under California state law is:
- $13.00 per hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees; and
- $14.00 per hour for employers with 26 or more employees.
California’s minimum wage is set to increase $1.00 per year until reaching $15.00, as outlined in the table below.
Then, starting January 1, 2024, the minimum wage will be adjusted each year based on changes in the Consumer Price Index, if any, up to a cap of 3.5%. If certain economic or budget conditions are met, the Governor can suspend a scheduled increase until the following year.
|Date||Employers with 25 or Fewer Employees||Employers with 26 or More Employees|
|January 1, 2021||$13.00/hour||$14.00/hour|
|January 1, 2022||$14.00/hour||$15.00/hour|
|January 1, 2023||$15.00/hour||$15.00/hour|
Many local jurisdictions in California have also passed minimum wage laws. And some of these laws require a minimum wage higher than the statewide minimum wage.
The following table lists the minimum wage currently in effect for local jurisdictions in California with established minimum wage laws.
City-Specific Minimum Wages Effective January 1, 2021
|Location||Employers with 25 or Fewer Employees||Over 25 Employees|
|Los Angeles City and County||15.00||$15.00|
|Novato||$14.00||$15.00 or $15.24 for 100+ employees|
|San Francisco City and County||$16.07||$16.07|
|South San Francisco||$15.24||$15.24|
Which workers are covered by the minimum wage laws in California?
Subject to a few exceptions and exemptions, all employees working in California are entitled to minimum wage — even if they don’t reside in California. The law does not allow employees to agree to work for less than minimum wage, even as part of a collective bargaining agreement.
Covered employees include tipped employees, like restaurant waitstaff. And unlike some other states, California does not allow employers to count tips towards their obligation to pay minimum wage.
Employees paid on a commission basis or by the task, job, or number of pieces produced must also generally receive minimum wage for all hours worked in a payroll period. The exception is “outside salespersons,” as defined in the section below.
As the laws only apply to employees, independent contractors are not covered by minimum wage laws.
But whether you’re an employee or an independent contractor doesn’t depend entirely on how the business classifies you, or what your contract says.
When determining your worker status, a court would look at the nature of your work and amount of direction and control that a business exercises over your work. If you were improperly classified, you may be covered by minimum wage laws. You’d also have a claim against your employer.
What are the exceptions to California’s minimum wage laws?
Certain California employees may be paid less than statewide minimum wage. Such employees include:
- “outside salespersons,” which include employees 18 or older who spend more than half of their working time away from the employer’s place of business selling items or obtaining orders;
- individuals who are the parent, spouse, or child of the employer;
- participants in national service programs such as AmericaCorps; and
- apprentices under the State Division of Apprenticeship Standards.
There are also exceptions for mentally or physically disabled employees and nonprofit organizations that employ disabled workers. Those individuals and organizations may get a special license from the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement permitting employment at a wage less than the minimum wage.
The following employees may also be paid at 85% of the minimum wage:
- Learners. “Learners” are employees in an occupation in which they have no previous or similar experience. This exception applies only during the first 160 hours of employment. After the first 160 hours, they must be paid at least minimum wage.
- Certain camp employees. This includes student employees, camp counselors, and program counselors at “organized camps.” “Organized camps” generally include sites with programs designed to provide an outdoor group living experience. They also must have social, spiritual, educational, or recreational objectives.
In addition, some employees are “exempt” from certain wage and hour laws in California — including minimum wage laws. Such exempt employees include those in professional, executive, or administrative roles.
But in practice, exempt employees must still get minimum wage. That’s because in order to qualify as an exempt employee, you have to earn at least twice the state minimum wage for full-time employment (40 hours per week).
For 2021, exempt employees in California must be paid at least:
- $58,240 per year for employers of 26 or more employees, and
- $54,080 for employers with 25 or fewer employees.
What should you do if your employer violates your right to minimum wage?
If your employer isn’t paying you minimum wage, you should first try speaking to your employer directly. You may be able to resolve the problem quickly, especially if your employer simply made a mistake.
But if your employer isn’t willing to work with you to resolve the problem, you can either:
- speak to an employment lawyer about filing a lawsuit to recover your unpaid wages; or
- file a wage claim with the Labor Commissioner’s Office.
If you can’t find an attorney to take your case, filing a claim with the Labor Commissioner may be your only option.
You generally have three years from the wage violation to file a claim or lawsuit. Not paying minimum wage can also be considered an “unfair business practice.” Claims based on unfair business practices must be filed within four years.
What compensation can you get for a minimum wage violation?
You can usually recover the following compensation in a successful wage lawsuit:
- wages owed to you to bring your compensation up to minimum wage;
- interest on wages owned;
- reasonable attorneys’ fees;
- a civil penalty of $100 for the first pay period of intentional violation, and $250 for each subsequent pay period of violation (whether intentional or not).
You may also get “liquidated damages” equal to your unpaid wages plus interest. That means your total recovery may be twice the amount of unpaid wages owed to you. But your employer won’t have to pay liquidated damages if they can show that not paying you minimum wage was a good-faith mistake.
What if your employer retaliates against you for complaining about a minimum wage violation?
Your employer may not discriminate or retaliate against you for pursuing your right to minimum wage. This includes if you:
- ask about why you’re not being paid minimum wage;
- threaten to file a claim or lawsuit; or
- file a claim or lawsuit.
If your employer does retaliate against you (for example, by firing you or demoting you), you’ll have another claim. You can file a discrimination/retaliation claim with the Labor Commissioner’s office, or you can file a lawsuit in court.
Claims must generally be filed with the Labor Commissioner within six months of the retaliatory act. If that time has lapsed, you should speak to an experienced employment lawyer. You may still be able to file a private lawsuit.
Are you a California employee with questions for an employment attorney?
At Whitehead Employment Law, employment law is what we do — it’s what we’re passionate about, and it’s the sole focus of our law practice.
We’re committed to effectively representing the rights of employees across the state of California — because we believe that everyone has the right to earn a living and provide for their family, free of unlawful discrimination and harrassment.
Our firm has won millions of dollars for employees all over California and we only take cases on contingency, which means we don’t get paid unless we win your case. Our fees come out of the court verdict or settlement with the company, so you don’t pay anything out of pocket.
If you’d like our help evaluating your case and understanding the options available to you, we would love to help.
Contact Whitehead Employment Law today at (949) 674-4922 or fill out our free case evaluation form. Consultations are free and confidential.
DISCLAIMER: This article does not provide legal advice and does not establish an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice, please contact an attorney directly.