Seyfarth Synopsis: Effective January 1, 2019, California’s minimum hourly wage goes up to $12.00 for large employers, and many local minimum wages will go higher still. Don’t forget that the statewide change will affect salary thresholds for white collar exemptions, as well.

Effective January 1, as New Year’s bells toll, California’s minimum hourly wage will increase to $12.00 for employers of 26 or more, and $11.00 for employers of 25 or fewer.

This latest statewide adjustment is part of a series of adjustments mandated by a 2016 statute that, by 2020, will raise the statewide minimum wage to $15.00. The latest adjustment obviously increases what employers must pay for regular and overtime wages for employees currently earning the minimum. And the new, higher minimum wage also will automatically increase the threshold salary employers must pay to maintain salary-exempt status for administrative, executive, and professional employees: the threshold salary is twice the state minimum wage for a 40-hour week. The new annual salary minimum for large employers as of 2019 will thus rise to $49,920 (2 times $12/hour times 40 hours/week times 52 weeks/year).

In addition, to maintain overtime-exempt status for commissioned salespeople (in retail and service establishments, with the earnings threshold calculated as exceeding 1.5 times the current minimum wage), employers must now pay a higher earnings threshold—$18.01 per hour—and over one-half of the earnings must consist of commissions, so commissions might have to be increased accordingly.

And, of course, employers, under the Wage Theft Prevention Act, must notify non-exempt employees in writing of any changes to their new rate of pay within seven calendar days from the time of the change.

On top of the statewide change, the following California cities will be sending their own New Year’s greetings for minimum-wage earners:

Belmont: Employers who are subject to the Belmont Business License Tax or who maintain a facility in Belmont must pay—to each employee who performs at least two hours of work per week in Belmont—a minimum wage of $13.50. This requirement applies to both adult and minor employees.

Cupertino: Employers who are subject to the Cupertino Business License Tax or who maintain a facility in Cupertino must pay—to each employee who performs at least two hours of work per week in Cupertino—a minimum wage of $15.00. Covered employees are entitled to these rights regardless of immigration status.

El Cerrito: An employee who performs at least two hours of work in a particular workweek within the geographic limits of the City of El Cerrito must be paid a minimum wage of $15.00. This minimum wage applies regardless of the size of the employer, and applies to both part-time and full-time employees.

Los Altos: Employers who are subject to the Los Altos Business License Tax or who maintain a facility in Los Altos must pay—to each employee who performs at least two hours of work per week in Los Altos—a minimum wage of $15.00. This requirement applies to both adult and minor employees.

Mountain View: Employers who are subject to the Mountain View Business License Tax or who maintain a facility in Mountain View must pay—to each employee who performs at least two hours of work per week in Mountain View—a minimum wage of $15.65. This requirement applies to both adult and minor employees.

Oakland: Employers in the City of Oakland must pay a minimum wage of $13.80 to employees who perform at least two hours of work in a workweek within the geographic limits of the city. This requirement applies to both part-time and full-time employees.

Palo Alto: Employers in Palo Alto must pay a  minimum wage of $15.00 to any employee who works two hours per week within Palo Alto.

Redwood City: Redwood City’s local minimum wage of $13.50 will apply to all business operating within the geographic boundaries of Redwood City and any employee working at least two hours per week.

Richmond: All employers in the City of Richmond must pay a minimum wage of $15.00 to employees who work at least two hours per week within the geographic boundaries of the city. This requirement applies to both minor and adult employees.

San Diego: Employers must pay all employees who perform at least two hours of work in one workweek within the geographic boundaries of the City of San Diego a minimum wage of $12.00. This requirement applies to both minor and adult employees.

San Jose: Employers who are subject to the San Jose Business License Tax or who maintain a facility in San Jose must pay—to each employee who performs at least two hours of work per week in San Jose—wages of not less than $15.00 per hour. This requirement applies to both minor and adult employees.

San Mateo: Employers who are subject to the City of San Mateo Business License Tax or who maintain a facility in the city must pay a minimum wage of $15.00. Tax-exempt nonprofit organizations must pay a minimum wage of $13.50. This requirement applies to adult and minor employees.

Santa Clara: Employers who are subject to the Santa Clara Business License Tax or who maintain a facility in Santa Clara must pay—to each employee who performs at least two hours of work per week in Santa Clara—a minimum wage of $15.00 per hour. This requirement applies to both minor and adult employees.

Sunnyvale: Employers who are subject to the Sunnyvale Business License Tax or who maintain a facility in Sunnyvale must pay—to each employee who performs at least two hours of work per week in Sunnyvale—a minimum wage of $15.65. This requirement applies to both adult and minor employees.

Below is a handy “at a glance” chart detailing these municipal increases.

City Minimum Hourly Wage Effective January 1, 2019
Belmont $13.50
Cupertino $15.00
El Cerrito $15.00
Los Altos $15.00
Mountain View $15.65
Oakland $13.80
Palo Alto $15.00
Redwood City $13.50
Richmond $15.00
San Diego $12.00
San Jose $15.00
San Mateo $15.00
Santa Clara $15.00
Sunnyvale $15.65

Finally, still more cities (including Los Angeles and San Francisco) will impose higher minimum-wage requirements next July 1. Be sure to check this space in mid-2019 for those updates.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing issues a yearly report describing its complaint and litigation trends. Below is the Reader’s Digest™ version.

The DFEH recently issued its 2017 Annual Report covering its fifth year in active litigation. In 2013, the California Legislature authorized the DFEH to file lawsuits under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”), California’s stricter version of federal anti-discrimination law, as well as under the Unruh Civil Rights Act, the Disabled Persons Act, and the Ralph Civil Rights Act. Over the years, the DFEH’s operations have expanded to 220 fulltime employees, including attorneys, investigators, paralegals, and mediators, working from five California offices. (That is likely bigger than most California law firms and corporate legal departments.) The DFEH is presently the largest state civil rights agency in the country, with the power to launch state-wide representative actions for uncapped damages, attorney fees and costs, and injunctive relief, such as requiring new or revised policies and employee training.

Opening the Door to More Complaints. The DFEH over the last year launched a series of initiatives making it easier to file a civil rights complaint in California. The centerpiece of the effort was a new case filing and management system, called Cal Civil Rights System (CCRS). It allows employees and tenants to file a complaint and trigger a state-led investigation process using an online platform. Now individuals, from the comfort of their living rooms, can file a complaint, schedule appointments with investigators, check on case status, submit notes and documents, request right to sue letters, and even make public records requests.

Given this new ease of access, it is no surprise that DFEH filings increased during 2017. The DFEH received nearly 25,000 administrative complaints and inquiries. That is a 5% jump from 2016 and 2015 (which had roughly the same number) and substantially more than the 19,000 filed in 2014. About 90% of 2017 complaints were employment-related, 5% were housing matters, and the remainder fell under the Unruh, Ralph, and Disabled Persons Acts. Approximately 19,000 complaints resulted in formal charges filed with the DFEH. About one-half of complaints, or 12,872, requested an immediate right to sue, thereby bypassing any investigation or vetting by the DFEH before involving the courts.

What is striking about the DFEH’s report is the number of age discrimination and retaliation complaints made in 2017. Almost 20% of employment complaints in 2017 were for age discrimination (up from 11% in 2016). The largest portion of charges requesting a right-to-sue asserted age discrimination and retaliation—totaling 30% of the bases alleged. Disability was the next most commonly asserted basis in 2017; charges asserting disability exceeded the number of ancestry, religion, national origin, marital status, color, and sexual orientation discrimination charges combined.

Los Angeles County was the most litigious region in 2017. Employees and residents of the County of Angels filled out 30% of the DFEH’s total docket. Los Angeles County also ran the board in every type of complaint within the DFEH’s jurisdiction: 21% of employment, 22% of Ralph Act, 25% of Disabled Persons Act, and 30% of housing-related complaints. Orange and San Diego Counties were the second and third most active regions, with 8% and 6% of complaints, respectively. Sacramento County—not San Francisco, Santa Clara, or other more populated areas—has surprisingly been the source of the most DFEH complaints in Northern California, for three years running. Placer County’s 139 complaints in 2017 makes it the most charge-happy county in California by population size (it also won this top-honor in 2016).

The DFEH’s report provides some demographic information on the 2017 class of complainants. Over the last year, 52% of complainants disclosed their race and 35% stated their national origin when filing with the DFEH. The largest group of reporters identified as Caucasian (32.5%) and American (52%), which is consistent with 2016 figures. Individuals identifying as Hispanic or Latino brought 28% of charges in 2017, and those reporting as African American filed 23% (also tracking 2016 statistics). The DFEH has not to date elected to track other demographic data regarding complainants, such as age, sex, gender, marital status, household income, or religion.

Investigations and Settlement Revenues Spiked. The DFEH saw a 22% increase in investigations to 6,160 in 2017. Only 888 of these complaints settled, or 14%, which is a 7% drop from 2016. The remaining 5,000 plus charges, presumably, carried over into 2018, were withdrawn by the claimant, resolved through private negotiation, dismissed by the DFEH, or consolidated with an overlapping charge.

The DFEH had a fruitful year in terms of settlement revenues. It netted 12% more in 2017, bringing $12,984,367 to state coffers. Notably, this figure does not count monies generated through settling any of the 35 civil complaints filed by the DFEH in 2017. The DFEH’s most successful year in terms of pre-lawsuit settlement revenues appears to have been in 2013, with $13,433,922.

The data suggest that the cost to settle a complaint increases as the matter moves through the DFEH’s review process. Cases settled for $8,966 on average within the Enforcement Division, the DFEH’s investigative arm. Where the parties agreed to participate in the voluntary dispute resolution process, it took $14,122 on average to resolve it. Once the matter reached a pre-suit posture, in mandatory dispute resolution, it cost employers $42,513 on average to settle. And after the case was referred to the Legal Division and DFEH attorneys got involved, the average settlement figure was $42,860. Early resolution efforts evidently pay off.

The DFEH Hand-Picks Charges It Brings to Court. The DFEH filed 35 lawsuits in 2017. That is less than 1% of the 6,160 complaints investigated by the Enforcement Division. The DFEH then referred 140 of those charges, or 2%, to the DFEH’s attorneys in the Legal Division. Only one-quarter of these matters ended up in litigation.

Complaints referred to the Legal Division split almost evenly between housing and employment matters. Housing cases made up 40%, followed closely by employment complaints at 39%, and Unruh Act charges at 24%. No Disabled Persons Act claims were sent to legal in 2017. These figures are largely in line with the DFEH’s 2016 referrals, although notably there was a 21% increase in Unruh Act charges considered for litigation in 2017. In 2015, the DFEH gave much more priority to employment matters, making up 56% of charges passed on to its lawyers.

While age discrimination complaints picked up in 2017, the DFEH did not give such claims preference. None of its lawsuits asserted a claim for age discrimination. Disability discrimination continued to be the DFEH’s focus, as it was in 2015 and 2016. The theory was asserted in 11 employment, seven housing, and eight Unruh-related lawsuits–or roughly 74% of cases. Retaliation was a close second with 10 such civil actions. Sexual harassment complaints slightly increased year over year from four to six. Discrimination based on religion, ancestry, and national origin resulted in less than a handful of suits over the last three years.

Key Takeaways. Each year the DFEH’s focus appears to shift towards litigation. Referrals from its enforcement to legal divisions have crept up over the years from 98 in 2014 to 140 in 2017. Recent technological changes to the DFEH’s claims and investigation process have brought new efficiencies within the agency and freed staff to give more individual attention to cases.

As the DFEH steps up its game, so should employers. Well-written policies and regular trainings are two ways to curtail bad employee behavior, ensure compliance with the law, and stay off the DFEH’s radar altogether (not to mention boost morale and productivity in the workplace). Los Angeles and Sacramento employers, in particular, should make this a priority given the number of charges filed each year from their own backyards.

When a complaint is made with the DFEH, get counsel involved early. The 2017 data show that claims resolve for the least amount of dough at the investigation stage. Companies that drag their feet may end up dealing with the legal department, where the chance of getting sued rockets up from 1% to 25%. Given our recent experience, it would be no surprise if this figure increased further in 2018. We will report on that next Summer, as we did on the DFEH’s report last year. Seyfarth Shaw is ready to assist in the meantime on ways to proactively avoid complaints, timely address DFEH inquires, and defend charges and litigation.