Which Wage and Hour Laws Apply to California Public Employees?

Wage and hour laws require that employers pay minimum wages and overtime wages, provide meal and rest breaks, and pay all wages immediately upon termination of employment, among many other things.Gear and Gavel Public employees often wonder whether they are covered by these laws, or whether such basic protections do not apply to them.  The answer in California, in true lawyerly fashion, is, “it depends.”  This post will attempt to sort out which wage and hour laws apply to public employees and which, unfortunately, do not.

First, to be clear, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA, applies to public employees.  However, unlike California law, the FLSA does not require employers to provide meal or rest breaks.  Nor does it require that employers pay overtime if employees work more than eight hours in a day.  (California law does.  See Labor Code section 510.)  For these reasons, California law is much more protective.  But which California protections apply to public employees?

Turning first to the general rule, on July 1, 2019, in Stoetzl v. Department of Human Resources (2019) 7 Cal.5th 718, the California Supreme Court agreed with the oft-cited maxim that provisions of the California Labor Code in general do not apply to public employees unless they specifically say that they do.  Fortunately for workers there are a few situations in which that is the case.

Minimum Wage Requirements

For example, in Sheppard v. North Orange County Regional Occupational Program (2010) 191 Cal.App.4th 289, the Fourth District Court of Appeal found that the minimum wage provisions of Wage Order 4-2001 apply to public employers.  That is because the wage order explicitly provides that its minimum wage section applies to employees directly employed by the State or any political subdivision thereof, including any city, county, or special district.

Similarly, in Marquez v. City of Long Beach (2019) 32 Cal.App.5th 552, the Second District Court of Appeal extended this holding to charter cities, which are generally authorized to govern themselves, free of state intrusion.  In Marquez, the plaintiffs sought to apply the State’s minimum wage law to Long Beach, which is a charter city.  The court found that the minimum wage for California workers is a matter of state concern, and therefore enforceable.  (In reaching this holding, the court applied the four-part test announced in State Building & Construction Trades Council of California v. City of Vista (2012) 54 Cal.4th 547.)

In Stoetzl, the California Supreme Court essentially agreed with Sheppard’s analysis.  See 7 Cal.5th at 930 (“Wage Order No. 4 applies to employee of the state government, but only in part.”)  So we know that the minimum wage requirements apply to public employees.  How about other types of laws?

Overtime and Meal Break Requirements

In Johnson v. Arvin-Edison Water Storage Dist. (2009) 174 Cal.App.4th 729, the Court of Appeal for the Fifth District held that Labor Code section 510, which governs overtime, and section 512, which governs meal breaks, did not apply to public employees.  The court noted that sections 510 and 512 did not mention public employers, unlike section 555, .  (Section 555 provides that the sections in that chapter pertaining to maximum consecutive working days (sections 550, 551, 552 and 554), “are applicable to cities which are cities and counties and to the officers and employees thereof,” i.e., to specified public entities.) The Legislature’s decision not to include similar language in sections 510 and 512 indicates that it did not intend to apply those sections to public entities.

Payment of Wages upon Termination of Employment

Labor Code sections 201 and 202 require an employer to immediately pay wages to an employee upon that employee’s termination or layoff.  (If an employee resigns, an employer has 72 hours to pay them all wages due.)  Section 203 imposes penalties against an employer who willfully fails to pay such wages in accordance with sections 201 and 202.  These penalties, which are based upon the employee’s rate of pay and can run up to 30 days, can be substantial.

Labor Code section 220, subdivision (b), provides that these sections do not apply to “employees directly employed by any county, incorporated city, or town or other municipal corporation.”  Therefore, a public employee who did not fall into any of these categories would arguably be protected by Labor Code sections 201-203.

The attorneys at Hunter Pyle Law represent both public and private employees in individual and class actions throughout California.  If you have a question about your situation at work, please feel free to contact us for a confidential initial intake.  We can be reached at (510) 444-4400 or inquire@hunterpylelaw.com.