A reader writes:
I recently left my employer and started at a new workplace, which has been fantastic. However, on my last day with my previous employer (a pretty big nonprofit organization that works with kids), I didn’t receive my final paycheck. The office manager told me two days before my last day that I’d receive my final paycheck during the next pay period. I live in California and checked the labor code, and I was supposed to receive my final paycheck on my last day. The leadership staff (the CPO, the site director, and the office manager) were all out on my last day (a Friday), so I sent an email to the office manager with my final hours and said that I wanted my final paycheck by the following Wednesday. I didn’t want to bring up the labor code, so I simply said it was so that I could make the transition from my old job to my new job easier.
Well, I didn’t hear back that entire week and didn’t receive my paycheck. So I emailed again today (so about a week and a half has passed) and this time brought up that I hadn’t received my paycheck yet even though I had requested it by Wednesday and that after looking at the labor code, I should have received it on my last day, and that I wanted the issue resolved quickly. The office manager said she hadn’t looked at my previous email because she doesn’t handle manually input hours until the end of a pay period (and I had to manually input my final hours). So my check should be mailed out Wednesday.
I’m a little frustrated because this has put my wife and I in a bind because we’re trying to pay bills and I don’t receive my first paycheck from my new job until the middle of October because of where I started in their pay period. So we’re having to dive into savings to cover our expenses until I can get this paycheck. It’s more frustrating to me that the office manager didn’t even open my email about my final hours and request for my paycheck until a full week after I sent it. I know that the California Labor Code entitles me to penalty wages because of the length of time I’ve had to wait and the fact that this falls under willfully not paying me. I don’t want to burn my bridges completely, but this has put my wife and I in a difficult place financially. My immediate supervisor from there is leaving the organization, and I know she’ll give me a good reference, so I wouldn’t be dependent on the organization for a reference. Should I just drop this altogether, accept that I got my paycheck albeit late, and move on? Or should I file a claim with the labor dept?
To fill in readers who might not understand how this works in California: When an employer in California (and some other states) doesn’t pay you within the amount of time the law requires, the law says that they owe you additional money on top of your wages — as a penalty for being late. (In this case, it’s an amount equal to your daily rate of pay for each day that the money remains unpaid, up to a maximum of 30 days.)
For what it’s worth, they probably didn’t intentionally set out to screw you over; many smaller employers without dedicated employment lawyers on staff don’t realize that some states require the final paycheck to be issued on an employee’s last day. You can argue that they should realize, but the reality is that many don’t. So when you asked for it to be issued to you by that following Wednesday rather than in the next regular payroll, they probably didn’t realize that there were legal requirements in play.
In any case, as for what to do here… It really depends on how you feel about the employer and what kind of relationship you want with them.
The argument for filing a claim: The law entitles you to do that if you want. They broke the law, and this is the recourse that the law makes available to you.
The argument for not filling a claim: It’ll absolutely be taken by your old employer as an F-you. You’ll be immediately making the relationship a contentious one, you’ll burn the bridge as far as future references, and you may find yourself being badmouthed (subtly or not subtly) to other employees, vendors, and others. That might not seem fair, but that tends to happen when you bring legal action against someone, even if you’re 100% in the right.
Now, you might think that you don’t care about the reference because you’ll use the manager who’s no longer employed there, but plenty of future reference-checkers will call this company directly. And beyond that, you never know when someone from that company is going to pop up at a different company you’d like to work at, and being the guy who filed a legal claim because his paycheck was a week or two late is something that could kill your chances there.
I know none of this sounds particularly fair. After all, why provide a legal remedy if there’s such a downside to using it? But that’s the way it works. The same is true for bringing most other types of legal action too; there tends to be a price, and only you can decide if the price is worth it to you.
Personally, I’d save legal action for cases where something is more egregious than this. But you might make the calculation differently, and that’s fine. Just do it with your eyes fully open about how it could play out.