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Davis, California

Monday, April 15, 2024

Watts Legal

Question: I work at an accounting firm, and I quit my job a couple weeks ago after giving my boss 30 days notice beforehand. He seemed okay with me leaving at first. But after I left, he wrote me an email accusing me of not finishing my work. This is false. I did finish my work, and I gave him plenty of time to hire my replacement, who I personally trained to take over my accounts. Still, he says he will not give me my final paycheck until I come back to work for him and finish off my accounts.

I’m afraid that if I don’t come back to work for him, he’ll lie to future employers when they call for a reference and say I was a dishonest employee or something.

Can I do anything to get my final paycheck? Can I stop him from badmouthing me to other employers?

– Jessica W.

Sacramento, CA

Answer: Yes and yes. He must give you your paycheck, and he cannot lie about you to other employers.

Giving an entire month’s notice was incredibly generous of you, and the employer should be happy to have an employee who made the transition so easy for him. You did not have to give your employer advance notice before leaving. That whole “two weeks notice” thing is just a custom; it’s not the law.

When you give more than 72 hours of notice before quitting, your employer is supposed to have your final paycheck ready for you on your last day of work. Even if you give less notice than that, he is still supposed to send you the check within 72 hours after you quit. In fact, according to section 203 of the California Labor Code, for each day he refuses to give you your final wages, he will owe you a penalty. That daily penalty will equal the same rate at which you were paid. For example, if you were paid $120 per day, the employer would owe you $120 for every day he refuses to give you your final paycheck. This penalty keeps adding up, and tops out after 30 days. And if he does wise up and offer to pay you, you cannot try to dodge the paycheck in order to rack up penalty pay. California law is a good deal for you, and a bad deal for him.

As for the badmouthing issue, you have protections there, as well. Labor Code section 1050 says that any employer whose employee has quit cannot use “misrepresentations” to attempt to prevent the former employee from getting a new job. In other words, the employer cannot lie about you to try to stop your new boss from hiring you. Even if you had been fired instead of quitting voluntarily, this law would still protect you: Your employer cannot make misrepresentations to stop you from obtaining employment, or else your employer is guilty of a misdemeanor.

In addition to the criminal penalties for an employer’s lies, an employee also has the independent right to sue the employer. After winning such a lawsuit, you would be entitled to triple the normal amount of damages (i.e. the money you lost because of your employer’s lies).

To get this started, you can file a claim with the California Department of Industrial Relations. Tell them what happened in plain English, and they will investigate your boss’s behavior. Their website is http://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/dlseWagesAndHours.html.

But before going through with all this, an employee in your situation might want to simply discuss this with her former boss, preferably in writing. She could send him an email with a link to this column, and explain that she intentionally gave him in advance an entire month’s notice to ensure that he would not be left hanging. She only wants what is owed to her, and she would be willing to waive the daily penalties (which add up quickly!) if he immediately stops withholding wages. The employee could throw in a request for a positive letter of recommendation while she’s at it, since the employer, at this point, would probably give a negative reference if asked.

If all you want is what you are owed, he should see reason and pay you.


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