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Paycheck Disputes and Wage Claims Involving California School Teachers and Administrators
Receiving an accurate paycheck is a basic right, yet for many school teachers and administrators, it can be a nightmare. Why is this so? Because school districts are notorious for making mistakes. In San Francisco and Oakland, for example, we have represented a number of employees who have either been underpaid or overpaid. That’s right: they have done their jobs (and done them properly) but their employer has made a mistake and cut them a paycheck for the wrong amount.
While these cases are somewhat rare, they can and do occur. When they do, it spells trouble for the affected employee. In this article, we will provide you with a few tips to help navigate these choppy waters. You may be able to assert a potent wage claim against your employer, and you have clear legal rights in cases where an employer attempts to claw back money that has already been paid. Here’s some practical advice.
The first thing you should do on payday is examine the stub that accompanies your paycheck. Employers are required bylaw to properly and accurately account for all deductions from your gross salary. Make sure that those deductions are accurate – and if you see something on the stub that you don’t understand, make sure to promptly contact the employment relations office and ask them to explain.
When analyzing your paycheck, look carefully at the stated gross amount of your salary. Make sure that the gross sum matches up with the published salary schedule. If you are paid via 10 checks per year, the calculation is easy: multiply the gross amount on the paystub by 10 and the total should appear somewhere on the salary schedule. (If you are paid via 12 monthly checks, multiply by 12.)
If the annual total does not match the appropriate sum on the published salary schedule, something is wrong. You should take the paystub to the employment relations office and ask an appropriate person to verify that you are being paid the correct amount and document the meeting (and conclusions) in writing. Make sure the person you are speaking with can match your monthly gross pay with a published salary schedule.
In the event you have been underpaid, you should make a written request for immediate payment of the amount due. Don’t let the problem fester. In certain cases, you cannot pursue the matter unless you first file a claim against the district pursuant to the California Government Code. This requirement does not exist in every case, but if your local school district has established a policy to require such claims, you will be required to follow the procedure. (We’ve been asked to pursue underpayment claims on behalf of several school administrators who didn’t discover the problem until several years after the fact. Because the school district had a policy to require a government code claim, the persons were restricted to only one year’s back pay.)
If the school district either disputes the claim or otherwise does not pay, you can file a wage claim with the California Labor Commissioner’s office and you may be entitled to recover interest, penalties and attorney’s fees if your wage claim is successful.
By all means, be alert. Check our paycheck and ask questions if you don’t understand it.
What should you do if you have been overpaid? The most important thing to understand is that you are not entitled to keep the money. While the problem may be small, it can mushroom, and fast. Overpayment of $250 a month quickly becomes a $3,000 claim in 12 months and if several years pass without the issue being detected, the school district may have a claim against you for several thousand dollars.
Should you be in this position, you should take several steps, the first of which is to verify to your own satisfaction that the District’s claim is valid. Carefully review your paystubs and the published salary schedules to see if there really has been an overpayment. You may have been entitled to a stipend or other increase over the base salary and the District staff may have miscalculated the amount due.
We have seen several cases where the District confronted the employee, stated the problem, and then declared that deductions would be made from future paychecks to “repay” the money that the District claimed was due. If this happens to you, be careful. The practice of a forced deduction is flatly illegal in California. No employer is entitled to deduct money from an employee’s paycheck for a disputed debt; and even if the debt is admitted, the employer cannot make a deduction without the employee’s consent.
Rather than force a deduction on an employee, the District’s remedy is to file a lawsuit, obtain a judgment (after trial) and then (and only then) collect the money via post judgment procedures authorized by statute.
This is not to suggest that every case be litigated, or that you should be uncooperative with your employer in an overpayment case. Quite to the contrary, it is always in your interest to sit down with your employer, discuss the issues, and attempt to work out a settlement. The point is: you have control, not the District. You have a right to state your case and to disagree with the District in cases where he District is wrong. You are not required to capitulate to have unwanted deductions made from your paycheck. If you stand your ground, the District will back down. And if the District refuses to do so and proceeds to make an unauthorized deduction from your paycheck, you should consult immediately with legal counsel and file a claim with the Labor Commissioner based on an improper paycheck deduction.
Even if the District has a valid claim, you may be able to negotiate a payment schedule that is far more reasonable than the one initially proposed by your employer. As noted above, you have control here; the District cannot make a deduction from your paycheck without your consent, and you should use that leverage to work out a payment schedule that is acceptable to you, rather than contorting yourself to comply with a schedule demanded by the District.
Whether it’s a case of underpayment or overpayment, the same principles apply. Keep your paystubs. Study them. And if your paid salary does not match the governing salary schedule, speak up and get the problem resolved/
There are many other subtleties to these cases, but hopefully these pointers will help you deal with the issues, should they arise in the course of your employment.
Our firm regularly consult and advise school district employees, their unions and in some cases school employers on issues relating to education law and the school worksite.