The Private Attorney General Act (PAGA) protects aggrieved employees. Learn what the future of this law means for your small business.
Learn The Facts Behind The Private Attorney General Act California
As a business owner or a working-class citizen within California, it is likely you’ve heard of the Private Attorney General Act (PAGA). It was introduced to protect workers and employees from any labor code violations inflicted by their employers.
Although it might seem straightforward, this law has long been the subject of many debates throughout the business community. So what are the hard facts?
PAGA gives employees the power to file lawsuits on behalf of themselves. When filing a lawsuit under PAGA, an employer can make their employee accountable for labor law violations and, if successful, share the recovered penalties between the employees affected and the state of California.
Since the law took effect on January 4, 2003, numerous corporations and business groups have challenged the PAGA legislation claiming it allows for shallow lawsuits that impose disproportionate penalties. These corporations have organized many legal challenges, seeking to reform and limit the PAGA by contesting its scope.
Despite these efforts, the law remains in effect and continues to provide employees with a voice to hold their employers accountable by allowing them to self-enforce labor laws within California.
Given the ongoing disputes, it is expected that there will be changes to PAGA laws in the future. What potential adaptations or amendments might be implemented remains a topic of discussion.
In this article, we aim to provide a comprehensive overview of the PAGA legislation and its impact on both employees and employers. We will begin by explaining the current benefits of PAGA for both parties involved, shedding light on how the law operates and the claim process for employees.
Furthermore, we will delve into the different perspectives surrounding PAGA by exploring the arguments in favor of and against it. We will also address the ongoing legal challenges faced by PAGA and examine the potential reforms that may be implemented in the future.
By the end of this article, we hope to equip you with a deeper understanding of the PAGA legislation and its implications within the California workplace and how employers can effectively prepare for any potential changes.
How PAGA Benefits Businesses
The PAGA legislation is designed to create a culture of compliance with labor laws, promoting fair labor practices within all industries across California. The law applies to all corporations and businesses, encouraging them to prioritize ethical and just working environments over profitability.
By upholding state labor standards, businesses can avoid costly penalties and potential damage to their reputation. This serves as a deterrent and levels the playing field by promoting fair treatment of employees, ensuring that businesses that treat their employees well are not at a disadvantage compared to those that do not.
Ultimately, the PAGA creates a more equitable and competitive business landscape, benefiting all employers and business owners.
How The PAGA Protects Employees
By allowing employees to file claims, PAGA ensures that employers are held accountable for their actions and that employees are not exploited or mistreated in the workplace. PAGA ultimately protects workers’ rights.
Employees can issue a PAGA lawsuit, hold employers accountable for various labor code violations, and recover civil penalties, which we’ll discuss in detail.
Labor Violations That Lead To PAGA Claims
Through PAGA, employees can hold their employers accountable for a range of labor code violations. Specifically, PAGA highlights three types of labor violations that can prompt a PAGA claim. These include:
Violations of Labor Law as Stipulated in the PAGA Statute
The PAGA statute stipulates explicitly at least five of the labor laws that can lead to a PAGA claim if violated. These include:
- Failure to pay minimum wage.
- Failure to provide meal and rest breaks.
- Misclassification of employees as independent contractors
- Failure to reimburse business expenses.
- Failure to provide accurate wage statements (including any violations relating to overtime)
Any employee who has been affected by any of these violations outlined in the PAGA statute can pursue a PAGA claim.
Violations of California’s Health & Safety Regulations
Employers in California must comply with all health and safety regulations to ensure a safe working environment for their employees. Consequently, violations of these regulations can ensue in a PAGA claim. These might include:
- Failure to provide adequate training and protective equipment.
- Failure to properly maintain equipment.
- Failure to address hazardous working conditions.
PAGA empowers employees to file claims against their employers for these violations and provides a means of enforcing health and safety regulations.
Any Other Violation of California Labor Laws
Although specific labor laws are highlighted in the statute, employees can place a PAGA claim against violations of any laws of the California Labor Code. The labor code covers extensive labor laws, including harassment and discrimination laws, sick leave laws, and the California Family Rights act.
As the PAGA specifies that any violation of the California Labor Code can lead employees to legal action, this gives employees broad protection through access to a powerful tool that enforces all labor laws.
Protection Of Employees’ Rights
PAGA laws are a critical element in protecting the rights of employees by providing them with affordable, efficient, and effective methods to file a lawsuit against their employer for any labor code violations against them or their colleagues. These laws empower workers to independently enforce violated labor codes.
As a result, employees can receive quick and significant compensation without the need for expensive private litigation or relying on the state’s already burdened legal system. Moreover, the PAGA laws ensure that employees are protected from forced arbitration, thereby leveling the playing field when it comes to disputes.
With labor enforcement agencies struggling to keep up with the expanding labor force and the increasing number of violations, PAGA laws provide employees with a much-needed voice to defend their workplace rights.
The PAGA Claims Filing Process
Because of the broad scope of PAGA laws, procedures have been implemented that aim to prevent abuse of its power before it can proceed to court as a lawsuit. The processes are outlined in Labor Code Sections 2698 – 2699.5. All PAGA claims must be filed through the official website using an intake form.
The first step in filing a PAGA claim is to provide written notification, provisional evidence, and specific court documents to the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency (LWDA).
This notification process serves to inform the employer of the alleged violation, giving them a chance to respond, as well as providing the LWDA an opportunity to investigate and pursue the claim themselves. If the agency fails to respond after the 65-day processing time, chooses not to pursue the claim, or is unwilling, the employee can proceed with a PAGA lawsuit.
Unlike class action lawsuits that require certification, a PAGA lawsuit proceeds as a representative lawsuit where the employee represents themselves and all other affected employees.
If the PAGA claim is successful in court, the civil penalty compensation is distributed by the LWDA, with 75% going to the state and the remaining 25% being allocated to the employees. It is important to note that there is a strict one-year statute of limitations, ensuring that the claim is made within one year of the alleged Labor Code Violation(s) date.
How Employees Can File PAGA Claims
To file a claim, specific information must be included in the notification to the Californian LDWA. It must clearly outline what the employer did wrong and how it violates California Labor laws. The report must plainly:
- Specify basic facts of what happened.
- Specify which provisions of the labor law have been violated.
- Provide a list of aggrieved employees.
The initial notification helps the agency to understand what specific laws were violated, the nature of the violation, and the potential impact on the discontented employees. Providing contact information for the employees that have been affected ensures they can be notified of the PAGA claim and have the opportunity to enter the lawsuit.
Although the initial PAGA notification needs to be thorough, it is important to know that it does not have to include all finite details regarding every fact or possible violation. It merely needs to include enough documentation to provide evidence to spark the investigation.
Current Legal Challenges To PAGA
Since its introduction, PAGA has faced a lot of challenges, particularly over its broad language, which can result in significant penalties for employers for minor technical claims or innocent mistakes.
A recent challenge in a state constitutional case argues that PAGA undermines the executive branch’s authority by delegating law enforcement power to private individuals. Essentially, they believe Californian citizens acting as private attorneys does not allow for sufficient oversight or control from the executive branch, which is responsible for enforcing state laws.
Despite previous challenges being unsuccessful, there are two upcoming cases in 2023 scheduled for California supreme court, which could change the way PAGA operates. One case aims to protect employers’ rights by allowing trial courts to dismiss overly broad or challenging PAGA claims. A trial court may help manage PAGA claims and give all parties a fair chance to present their case.
The other case suggests granting plaintiffs the right to object or move to vacate a settlement judgment in a PAGA case. However, if successful, this may inherently cause the settlement process to become more complex and contentious if different plaintiffs begin to fight over their share of the settlement. With ongoing challenges, it remains to be seen which components of the PAGA will be targeted for potential reform.
Questions Being Raised Stirring Talks Of Reform
Let’s examine three of the most significant questions being asked about the PAGA, how these questions may begin to mold reform, and how the PAGA operates in the future.
Do Lawyers Benefit The Most Under The Law?
Although PAGA can deliver significant penalties, data suggests that workers may actually be receiving less compensation through PAGA cases filed in court compared to cases judged by the LWDA.
There is striking evidence that challenges the way PAGA works and highlights that court settled PAGA claims could be benefiting lawyers rather than the aggrieved employees. The full report can be found here.
When PAGA claims are filed through court, representing attorneys can demand a minimum of 33% of the worker’s final compensation as their fee, regardless of how much legal work they perform. Shockingly, data has shown that attorneys can receive an average of $372,000 for a single PAGA case.
The case data collection also shows that because of this high fee structure, employers are paying out an average of 29% less per violation than if the case were settled with the state’s agency. Furthermore, workers involved in court cases often wait almost twice as long for their payout, with an average wait time of 23 months.
In essence, any proposed reform could imply that workers are receiving a lower average compensation in PAGA cases filed in court, as compared to cases decided by the state, due to the high attorney fees.
Has PAGA Improved Compliance With Labor Laws?
The effectiveness of PAGA in enhancing companies’ compliance with California Labor Laws remains a fundamental question.
On the one hand, California Research Bureau reported that the PAGA has led to increased enforcement of labor laws and has allowed workers to recover significant amounts of compensation, including back pay and damages. Furthermore, the PAGA provides a strong incentive for employers to comply with labor laws because of its potentially significant penalties.
On the other hand, critics claim that the PAGA has led to excessive litigation and high monetary and reputation costs for employers due to its abuse by plaintiffs’ attorneys. They argue that the law is being used to target employers for even minor violations, resulting in unfair and costly consequences for businesses.
Critics also contend that the PAGA has discouraged new businesses and businesses from expanding within the state due to the risk of litigation. The debate surrounding the effectiveness of the PAGA in improving compliance with Californian Labor Laws is ongoing and continues to be a topic of discussion.
Is PAGA Being Abused?
The LWDA has openly identified a concerning issue of PAGA abuse across the state of California. It has been suggested that some private plaintiffs’ attorneys have not always represented the best interests of the aggrieved employees or the state, leading to ill-considered and minor claims being filed.
This is a significant issue as it can allow PAGA claims to proceed despite their disruptive impact on workers. As a result, employers feel pressure to settle these claims regardless of their merit. They may feel obligated to settle even minor PAGA claims to avoid disruption and litigation in the hope of avoiding the risk of high penalties and expensive attorney fees.
The issue of PAGA abuse and the need for reform is likely to remain a hot topic in California. It is essential to find a way to balance the interests of workers and employers to create a fair and just system.
The Arguments For & Against PAGA Reform
Lawmakers and business owners alike are engaged in ongoing debates regarding the need for PAGA law reform. While many agree that PAGA is an essential enforcement tool for ensuring employer compliance and the protection of employees, others argue that abuse of the system and excessive penalties for minor or innocent mistakes have become significant issues.
Below is an insight into two of the major debate topics.
Independent Regulators & Big Lawsuits?
Supporters of PAGA reform argue that the current reliance on private litigation can be costly and time-consuming for both employers and employees, leading to settlements that may not be in the best interest of workers. It’s suggested that reforming PAGA could lead to more efficient and effective enforcement of labor laws, potentially reducing the need for private litigation.
Critics argue that the state labor agency should have a greater role in enforcing labor laws, reducing the burden on the courts, and improving the protection of workers. Proposed measures include offering employers sound channels to remedy the violation before litigation is pursued. This would aim to limit penalties for minor violations.
Opponents of PAGA reform argue that the private litigation process and availability of big lawsuits are effective in holding employers accountable for labor law violations. Without the threat of such lawsuits, employers may be less inclined to adhere to labor laws, leading to more violations and harm to workers. They also argue that reforming PAGA could limit workers’ ability to seek justice and recover damages for labor law violations, potentially leaving them with significantly reduced resources.
Additionally, those opposed suggest the labor agency is far significantly underfunded and understaffed to effectively enforce the labor laws appropriately, where reforming PAGA could lead to less accountability for employers and less access to justice for workers.
How Will Reforms Protect Workers’ Rights?
Supporters of PAGA reform argue that laws should incorporate measures such as requiring workers to notify their employer of the alleged violation before filing a lawsuit and giving employers a chance to address the violation before litigation is pursued. This would likely reduce the penalties for minor violations and require workers to exhaust administrative remedies before filing a PAGA claim.
Opponents of PAGA reform would argue that such measures would weaken worker protections and allow employers to persist in violating labor laws without consequences. They argue that PAGA should remain unchanged or be strengthened to ensure that workers are able to hold employers accountable for all labor law violations.
What PAGA Reform Should Target
Most businesses hope that reform can address the highlighted concerns and improve procedural safeguards in litigation and enforcement while still maintaining the crucial role that PAGA plays in protecting workers’ rights. The suggested components within the law that businesses might like to see addressed are likely to include the following.
Proof That The Employee Has Suffered Harm
Under PAGA, an employee can file a claim against their employer for a labor code violation, even if the employee did not suffer harm. An employee can file multiple claims on behalf of other employees who may have been affected by the same labor code violation, regardless of whether those employees suffered harm. This means an employer could potentially face a lawsuit for a minor violation, even if no employees were subject to direct damages.
Some have suggested that PAGA should be amended to require employees to show that they have suffered harm to file a claim. Additionally, there may be merit in the extent of harm to be established within the claim, which may better defend employers where lawsuits are filed against a good faith error. Such changes could help control frivolous lawsuits and ensure that only legitimate claims are pursued.
A Defined Standing Requirement
The PAGA legislation outlines that employees seeking to claim must be an “aggrieved employee” as a defining standing requirement. Which is described as any person that was hired by the employer and whom “one or more of the alleged violations” was committed against.
The specific wording here of ‘one or more’ means that a single employee can bring a civil action against their employer for multiple Labor Code violations even if they only suffered from one of the alleged violations, ultimately allowing them to receive compensation for all of them.
Additionally, recent PAGA cases have been filed, which expand the definition of the standing requirement, further pushing the boundaries. Even if an employee has settled their individual claims, the statute of limitations has expired, or resides outside the jurisdiction where the case is filed, and they may still be eligible to pursue legal action.
These broad terms and interpretations of standing have been criticized for leading to lawsuits of minor claims to employees who suffer little to no harm, which results in very large penalties for the employer. Some have suggested that a more defined standing requirement could help prevent such abuses of the system.
Reducing Excessive Penalties
Employers can currently face significant penalties for each violation outlined within a PAGA claim, and they can quickly add up to exuberant costs for an employer.
The penalty starts at $100 per employee per pay period for the initial violation, moving to $200 per employee per pay period for every additional violation. For example, if a company has 150 employees and is found to have violated five labor laws over the course of a year, it could face penalties of up to $225,000.
These penalties can prove devastating for small businesses that do not have access to sufficient funding. Consequently, there is an ongoing debate about the appropriate level of penalties under PAGA and how they should be enforced to strike a balance between protecting workers’ rights and the financial viability of businesses.
Introducing Arbitration Agreements
An Arbitration agreement is a contract that requires two parties to dispute matters through an arbitration process rather than proceeding to court. The introduction of an arbitration agreement to PAGA could significantly impact its functionality and effectiveness. It could help resolve PAGA claims more efficiently and reduce the burden on the court system. It would likely also be a more cost-effective and informal means of resolving disputes for both parties, reducing stressful situations.
Although arbitration agreements are more efficient, employees may be limited when pursuing their rights and seeking widespread labor law violation compensation. Ultimately, the debate over whether to reform PAGA is complex and multifaceted. With arguments on both sides of the issue, it is important to find a happy medium for both parties.
How Small Businesses Can Prepare For Changes To PAGA
J.R. Martin & Associates can help with assisting businesses in preparing for PAGA changes by providing continuous business education and training on labor laws and compliance requirements.
This includes keeping businesses up to date with the fluid labor law and regulation changes, as well as providing guidance on ensuring proper employee classification to help avoid misclassification lawsuits.
Our team can also assist business owners in conducting regular audits of payroll services to ensure labor law compliance and prevent innocent clerical errors. This includes reviewing employee time records, payroll practices, and employee classifications to identify potential issues.
Additionally, our professionals can advise on how to implement policies and procedures for best practices and ultimately avoid labor law violations. This can include employee training on company policies and implementing processes for handling employee complaints or concerns.
Finally, J.R. Martin & Associates can provide support and assistance in the event a PAGA claim is filed against your business. Our ongoing support and guidance will help our clients address any issues identified throughout the PAGA claim process.
Prepare Yourself For What’s Next In Labor Laws
At J.R. Martin & Associates, we are committed to helping small businesses navigate the web of California labor laws and complex PAGA regulations. We offer comprehensive and ongoing supportive services to help provide solutions and processes to avoid any potential labor law violations.
With expertise, our professionals can provide high-level business education to ensure employers clearly understand their obligations and responsibilities. We are dedicated to helping small businesses succeed in an ever-changing and competitive marketplace.
We can help your business comply with the changes in California labor laws. Learn how to get California business regulations assistance today!