Documentation is the key to success in any legal claim. The better your documentation, the more persuasive your position will be with your employer. The question is what is the right approach for you to take to address your claim?
First, how did this go on for years? Was the back pay from one period of time or has it been accumulating over time? Timing and vigilance is important because there are statutes of limitation that will limit how far back you can go, which may be two, three or four years depending on the facts of your case. Have you been asking for your money or have you remained silent? Is there any documentation of promises made by the employer? Is there a contract? A lawyer will need to know the answer to these questions.
Because you may be losing out on the value of your claim as time goes on, you may need to take action quickly. Whether you or an attorney on your behalf, makes a demand, it is unlawful for an employer to retaliate against you for having done so. Of course, that does not mean the employer will not retaliate anyway. If this happens, you may be looking at a wrongful termination lawsuit as well. But is this what you want? You will have to weigh how important the $15,000 is against risking losing your job and being tied up in litigation that will probably cost more than $15,000.
These are all things to consider. It would be in your best interest to sit down with one or two experienced employment law attorneys in your area and have the attorney examine your case and give you the proper consideration and advice this matter deserves. Then, you can make an informed decision of what is best for you.
They say you get what you pay for, and this response is free, so take it for what it is worth. This is my opinion based on very limited information. My opinion should not be taken as legal advice. For true advice, we would require a confidential consultation where I would ask you questions and get your complete story. This is a public forum, so remember, nothing here is confidential. Nor am I your attorney. I do not know who you are and you have not hired me to provide any legal service. To do so would require us to meet and sign written retainer agreement. My responses are intended for general information only.
Mr. Kirschbaum gave a textbook response.
I would simply amplify his response with a thought: depending on the size of the employer a $15K claim, plus interest, penalties, attorney fees will likely cripple the employer. You need to be gone from that employer before you make the claim.
That means you need to move on quickly, because you may be already losing money to the statute of limitations for the money that should have been paid several years earlier.
You should locate and consult with an experienced employment law attorney about this. You can find one on this site in the Find a Lawyer section, or you can find many good experienced employment law attorneys at www.cela.org, the home page of the California Employment Lawyers Association, an organization whose members are dedicated to the protection of employee rights. You can find a database of its members on that site, categorized by city and practice areas.
Good luck to you.
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