Equal Pay Act

The California Equal Pay Act prohibits pay differences based on sex, gender, race and ethnicity unless the employer proves valid (bona fide) other reasons that explain the full amount of the difference.

The key for the employee is to make sure that the job of the higher-paid person qualifies as “substantially similar work.” Substantially similar work means substantially similar skill, effort, and responsibility. California Equal Pay Act laws also provide that the employee does not have to prove that a manager or the company was acting out of a biased motive.

Frequently Asked Questions About Equal Pay Act


The questions and answers presented in the FAQ are not intended to be exhaustive and do not constitute legal advice for your particular question, issue, or concern, nor does this FAQ create any attorney-client relationship or duty on our part to assist you. The information may help you think about your issues and ask the right questions if you choose to consult with an attorney.

I think my employer pays me less than my coworkers. Is that legal?

An employee in California can bring a claim for violation of the California Equal Pay Act if they can show that they performed substantially similar work to their co-workers of the opposite sex but received less compensation. The employee must show that the difference in pay was based on their sex and not due to any other factor such as seniority, merit, skill, or quantity/quality of work. The employee must also show that the same employer is responsible for both the employee’s and their co-worker’s pay. The burden of proof falls on the employer to justify any differences in pay based on the allowable factors under the law. You can read more about Equal Pay protections on our blog.

How do I know if I’m being paid the same as other people in my position at work?

California workers have the right to discuss their wages and salaries, as well as the right to ask companies for the salary scale that applies to them. Job applicants cannot be asked for salary history information, and salary history cannot be used to justify pay differences based on sex, race, or ethnicity. More information about Equal Pay protections is available on our blog.

How can I tell if my coworkers engage in “substantially similar work?”

“Substantially similar work” refers to work that is mostly similar in skill, effort, and responsibility, and performed under similar working conditions. Skill refers to the experience, ability, education, and training required to perform the job. Effort refers to the amount of physical or mental exertion needed to perform the job. Responsibility refers to the degree of accountability or duties required in performing the job.

Is there a time limit to file an Equal Pay Act claim?

Yes. The statute of limitations for an Equal Pay Act claim is two years from the date of the alleged violation and three years for willful violations. Each paycheck that reflects unequal pay is considered a violation for the purposes of calculating the deadline for filing.

What is the difference between Equal Pay laws and anti-discrimination laws?
Unequal pay is a form of illegal discrimination. You may, but are not required to, file a claim with the California Civil Rights Department (CRD) if you are only claiming unequal pay based on sex, race, or ethnicity. If you have additional claims of discrimination—for example, if you also claim discrimination in promotion based on sex or if you also claim discrimination based on another protected characteristic—you can include a claim for unequal pay along with the other claims of discrimination when you file the claim with the CRD.

What if my employer retaliates against me after complaining about unequal pay?

The California Labor Code specifically protects employees who discuss or inquire about pay, or who try to challenge violations of the Equal Pay Act. If you are fired, disciplined, or treated worse after complaining about unequal pay, your employer may be engaging in illegal retaliation. An equal pay attorney can help analyze the details of your case to determine what claims you may have.

What are my rights to equal pay if I am undocumented?

Undocumented workers have most of the same legal rights that citizens have under California and federal law. This includes minimum wage protections and protections against discrimination. That said, filing a lawsuit against your employer can create some risk of retaliation by your employer. If your employer reports you to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for example, ICE is allowed to follow up on the report, even though by making the report the employer is engaging in illegal retaliation.

Do equal pay and anti-discrimination laws apply to all employers?
The California Equal Pay Act applies to all employers who employ two or more employees. The Federal Equal Pay Act applies to employers with 15 or more employees. The various federal and state anti-discrimination laws have their own requirements regarding employer size.

Workplace Discrimination and Unequal Pay

California has some of the strongest equal pay laws in the country, and employers may face stiff penalties on top of unpaid wage damages. Employers can be on the hook even if they were not intending to discriminate. And, it is up to the employers to justify the pay differentials for workers doing the same or substantially similar work.

California employment discrimination law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on:

  • Race, color or ethnicity
  • National origin and ancestry
  • Disability
  • Sex
  • Age (40 and over)
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender identity, gender expression
  • Pregnancy (including childbirth, breastfeeding)
  • Disability and medical condition, mental and physical
  • Religion
  • Marital status

California employment discrimination law also prohibits employers from discriminating because of the employer’s perception that that the worker has a protected trait or because the worker has associated with or advocated for coworkers who have these protected traits.  

Employers that commit or fail to address discrimination in the workplace may be held accountable by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the California Civil Rights Department (CRD). Contact an equal pay lawyer to fight for your rights.

California Equal Pay Act and the Right to Transparency

California workers also have the right to disclose their own wages and salaries. Gag rules cannot be imposed to bar employees from talking about their pay (or other working conditions). Employees also have the protected right to ask their companies for the salary scale that applies to them.

Employee Privacy and the California Equal Pay Act

Meanwhile, even when applying for a job, job applicants cannot be asked for their salary history information. Employers cannot use prior salary to justify sex, race or ethnicity-based pay differences.

Legal Ramifications of Violating the California Equal Pay Act

In California, workers can seek what is called liquidated damages, or double damages, as well as civil penalties, for violations of the California Equal Pay Act and Fair Pay Act. Employees must act soon to protect their rights, because each paycheck could trigger a deadline for legal action.

Our Experienced California Equal Pay Act Lawyers Can Help

Valerian Law is skilled and experienced at enforcing Equal Pay protections for California employees. If you believe that another worker of a different sex/gender or race/ethnicity was paid more for the same or substantially similar work, give us a call at 888-686-1918 and we will walk you through your legal options.

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