itemized wage statement

Seyfarth Synopsis: With the widespread use of direct deposit, the thought of an employee regularly reviewing wage statements may seem inconceivable. Still, employers must ensure that their wage statements strictly comply with California law, as even trivial, inadvertent failures to do so can lead to heavy penalties. We highlight here the information to include on wage statements while pointing out some of the legal landmines trod upon by unwary employers.

Labor Code Section 226(a) Is Pain. Anyone Who Says Differently Is Selling Something.

Much like The Princess Bride, wage statements remain incredibly relevant. Section 226(a) forces employers to report nine items of information on each itemized statement that accompanies a payment of wages:

  1. gross wages earned by the employee,
  2. total hours worked by the employee,
  3. all applicable hourly rates during the pay period,
  4. all deductions taken from the employee’s wages,
  5. the net wages the employee earned,
  6. the pay period that the wage statement reflects, including the start and end date,
  7. the employee’s name and ID number (which can be the last four digits of the Social Security number (SSN)),
  8. the name and address of the legal employer, and
  9. if the employee earns a piece rate, then the number of piece-rate units earned and the applicable piece rate.

(Note that employers must also report available paid sick leave, either on the wage statement or on another document issued at the time of each wage payment.)

Avoiding the Fire Swamp: Wage Statement Line Mines to Avoid

  • If you use a payroll service to prepare the itemized wage statement, can you just “set it and forget it”? No, you can’t. Many excellent payroll services do get it just right. Meanwhile, other companies, operating nationally, have not always heeded each California-specific requirement. And they do not feel it’s their responsibility; it’s yours. They do not offer legal advice or indemnification to prevent and correct wage-statement mistakes. If you are the typical California employer, you are on your own to ensure that your wage statements are sufficiently “Cal-peculiar.”
  • If you create in-house wage statements, can you rely on your IT department to capture all the right payroll information in the format that HR has designed? No, you can’t. Many companies have lamented the discovery that the perfect wage statement designed by the legal or HR department did not emerge quite as envisioned once IT completed all the necessary programming. In the world of wage statements, for every ugly duckling turning into a swan there is a swan turning into an ugly duckling.
  • Many well-regarded employers—national behemoths and local start-ups alike—have tripped over innocent, often trivial wage-statement mistakes to fall into a pit of despair, where they’ve found themselves inundated by millions of dollars in penalties that bear little or no relation to any actual employee harm.
  • Among the alleged hyper-technical violations causing employers to spend heavily to defend themselves—and sometimes causing them to incur huge penalties—have been these:
    • Neglecting to total all the hours worked, even though the wage statement lists all the various types of hours individually.
    • Accidentally showing net wages as “zero” where an employee gets direct deposit.
    • Leaving off either the start or end date of the pay period.
    • Not showing the number of hours worked at each applicable rate.
    • Recording an incomplete employer name (“Summit” instead of “Summit Logistics, Inc.”).
    • Recording an incomplete employer address.
    • Failing to provide an employee ID number, or reporting a full nine-digit SSN instead of a four-digit SSN.
  • And remember to keep a copy of your wage statements (or to have the capability to recreate what the employees have received).

Reaching the Cliffs of Insanity: How Recent Case Law Intensifies the Impact of Section 226

By now, you surely ask, “Can it possibly get any worse than that?” Yes, it can. It has been bad enough, of course, that hyper-technical failures to show an item required by Section 226(a) could create large liability unrelated to any real harm. But, until recently, employers at least had the defense that no penalty was available absent a “knowing and intentional” violation, because that was what a plaintiff had to prove to get penalties ($50 or $100 per employee per pay period) under Section 226(e).

But now, if a recent Court of Appeal decision stands, that defense has been stripped away. Lopez v. Friant & Associates, LLC held that an employer whose wage statement failed to record an employee ID number could be subject to penalties under California’s Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA), even though the mistake was inadvertent and promptly corrected, and even though the employee admittedly suffered no injury by his employer reminding him each pay period what the last four digits of his SSN are. Lopez permitted the employee to sue for PAGA penalties without needing to prove the “injury” and “knowing and intentional” elements of a Section 226(e) claim. In short, Lopez is about as appealing as a Rodent Of Unusual Size (R.O.U.S.). See our detailed client alert on Lopez here.

Workplace Solutions: What Would Miracle Max Do

Though the exact impact of Lopez is unclear at this point (Lopez did not decide whether the extra PAGA penalty would be $250 per employee, under Section 226.3, or $100 per employee per pay period, under Section 2699(f)), Lopez rings the alarm that employers must proactively ensure that their itemized wage statements strictly comply with Section 226(a), lest they be the next to fall in the pit of despair. When is the last time you did your self-audit? Don’t hesitate to reach out to Seyfarth to help you ensure your wage statements are compliant.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Within the last few years, the California Legislature has amended laws related to an employee’s right to inspect personnel records, intending to ensure employees have access to those records. Since then, employers have seen more such requests, claims made before the Labor Commissioner, and even lawsuits over production of personnel files. We offer here some tips on how to comply.

What Is This Letter and What Do I Do About It?

Your company receives a letter from a former employee (or a lawyer) asking to inspect the personnel file or “employment records.” What (if anything) should you do in response?

How and when a California employer responds to these requests can have legal consequences. That’s right—employers can be sued (or even face criminal liability) over how they did, or did not, respond to personnel file requests.

The proper response depends, first, on what the employee is asking to inspect. In California, three principal statutes govern employee requests to inspect personnel records—Labor Code §§ 1198.5, 226, and 432. See below for details.

Labor Code § 1198.5

Section 1198.5 says that employees (and former employees) have the right to inspect personnel records maintained by the employer “related to the employee’s performance or to any grievance concerning the employee.” Employers must allow inspection or copying within thirty (30) days of the request, which can be made by the employee or their representative (often an attorney). That time period can be extended by five (5) days by mutual agreement.

Covered documents: Under the terms of the statute, it appears that documents such as performance reviews, commendation letters, disciplinary notices (“write-ups”), corrective action plans, and complaints about the employee would likely be covered.

The language in Section in 1198.5 is broad; it uses the terms “related to” and “concerning.” As a result, determining exactly what other documents might be covered can be a challenge. But the Labor Commissioner has issued some guidance on its website on what might be included in a “personnel file,” including, in addition to the above, things like an employment application, notices of leaves of absence or vacation, education and training notices, and attendance records. Unfortunately, there is no appellate case interpreting the scope of the current statutory language. So the overall scope of the statute still remains an open-ended question.

Nevertheless, the statute excludes certain files. For most employers, those files are (1) records about a criminal offense, (2) letters of reference, and (3) ratings, reports or records obtained before the employee’s employment, prepared by identifiable examination committee members, or obtained in connection with a promotional examination. In addition, employers can redact the names of any non-supervisory employee mentioned in the requesting employee’s file.

There are also situations when the statute does not apply. For example, if an employee (or former employee) files a lawsuit that “relates to a personnel matter” against the employer, then the right to inspect or copy the records ceases during the pendency of the lawsuit. The inclusion of this provision strongly suggests that Section 1198.5 is not a replacement for broad civil discovery.

What happens if I forget to produce records in time? If the employer does not permit the inspection or copying of these records in time, the employee may bring an action to obtain a court order (injunction) for the employer to comply with the statute. Employees are also entitled to a statutory penalty of $750 AND an award of attorneys’ fees and costs for bringing the action. And failure to comply is a criminal infraction. Ouch!

Labor Code § 226

Section 226 requires California employers to furnish employees with itemized wage statements that show nine (9) specific categories of information, such as all hourly rates, hours worked, gross wages earned, etc. The employer must provide these wage statements at the time employees are paid or semi-monthly. The specific information required and the entire text of the statute can be found here.

Covered documents: The scope of this one is easier than Section 1198.5. In addition to requiring itemized wage statements, this section also requires the employer to produce those wage statements to employees on request or a computer-generated report that shows all nine (9) categories of information required. Employers must make the records available to the employee within twenty-one (21) days.

What happens if I forget to produce records in time? Section 226 has remedies similar to those available under Section 1198.5. Section 226 also authorizes the employee to sue for a court order requiring the employer to produce the information and also a penalty of $750, and employees can also recover attorneys’ fees for bringing the lawsuit. Violation of the statute is also a criminal infraction. But unlike Section 1198.5, there is no exception for pending litigation. Yikes!

Labor Code § 432

Section 432 applies to any document that an employee (or job applicant) “signs” that is related to obtaining or holding employment. Upon request, the employer must provide those documents. Fortunately, this statute is simpler than the others. There is no timeline for production and there is no private right of action to enforce compliance.

But that does not mean that employers should ignore requests under this statute. As a practical matter, documents covered by this section can also be covered by Section 1198.5 (i.e., signed performance reviews or signed disciplinary write-ups). More importantly, failure to comply with such a request is a misdemeanor. And there is also no exception for pending litigation. Wow!

Covered documents: As mentioned, Section 432 covers any document the employee signed related to “obtaining” or “holding” employment. Examples include job applications, handbook acknowledgments, arbitration agreements, job descriptions, and any signed policy acknowledgments (anti-harassment, retaliation, discrimination, at-will employment, meal/rest break polices, etc.).

Workplace Solutions

Employers often wonder if they have to produce “every” record about an employee in response to these requests. As the statutes indicate, the answer is “no”— only documents that fall within the categories requested need to be produced. Employers must also remember to protect other important rights. Indeed, personnel issues often implicate attorney-client privilege, attorney work-product, proprietary information, and privacy issues. As a result, responding to personnel file requests often requires a case-by-case approach.

If you would like assistance in ensuring your company’s compliance with a personnel file request, or if you have any questions raised in this post, then please do not hesitate to contact the author or any other member of Seyfarth’s Labor and Employment Group.

Edited by Coby M. Turner.

The California Legislature seems intent on ending piece-rate pay as we have known it. A law effective January 1, 2016, goes beyond the previously discussed Bluford and Gonzalez decisions to mandate that employees who earn piece-rate wages be paid a special, separate rate for rest and recovery periods, as well as for all “other non-productive time.” Further, that rate will require special calculation and the itemized wage statement must report additional information (number of hours of each activity and the corresponding rates of pay). But don’t take our word for it. Read it and weep here.