Can Your California Employer Withhold Money From Your Paycheck for a Payroll Error?

California has very strict rules about what an employer can withhold from an employee's paycheck, beyond basic tax withholding, wage garnishments, and voluntary contributions.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

If your California employer has made a mistake on your paycheck which resulted in you getting more than you were owed, your employer might want to correct the error by withholding the amount it overpaid from our next paycheck.

Is that legal? Here's what you need to know.

Paycheck Deductions for Payroll Errors in California

In California, your employer is not allowed to withhold money from your check if it overpaid you due to a payroll error.

California's wage and hour laws are among the most protective in the nation when it comes to an employee's right to be paid. The Golden State has very strict rules about what an employer can withhold from an employee's paycheck.

Beyond basic tax withholding, wage garnishments, and voluntary contributions (for example, to a retirement account or to pay for health insurance), very few deductions are allowed.

"Self-Help" Prohibited for California Employers

California doesn't allow employers to engage in what the law calls "self-help" when it comes to paychecks.

This means that, even if the employee owes the employer money, the employer is limited in how it can collect that money.

The law allows an employer to withhold a set amount per paycheck if the employer and employee agree to the withholding, in writing. For example, if you asked for a payroll advance of $1,000, and you signed a written agreement that your employer could take $100 out of your next ten paychecks to pay itself back, that would be legal (as long as the deduction didn't bring your hourly earnings below the minimum wage).

However, your employer couldn't simply start taking these deductions without a written agreement. This is true even though everyone agrees that you borrowed the money. That you owe your employer money doesn't justify an employer taking it back out of wages you have earned.

California law views the money you earned and the money you owe as entirely separate: An employer can't reach into your wages to pay back the debt, unless you agree to it.

The bottom line is that if a California employer accidentally overpays employees, it cannot simply withhold that amount from a later paycheck.

This is true even if you were paid too much, and that money rightfully belonged to your employer.

In such a situation, an employer has the right to sue you to get its money back, then garnish your wages for it if it wins in court. It also has the right to ask you to sign a written agreement allowing the deduction from your wages. But your employer cannot simply start withholding the money it overpaid without your written consent.

Get Professional Help
Talk to an Employment Rights attorney.
There was a problem with the submission. Please refresh the page and try again
Full Name is required
Email is required
Please enter a valid Email
Phone Number is required
Please enter a valid Phone Number
Zip Code is required
Please add a valid Zip Code
Please enter a valid Case Description
Description is required

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you