What can I do if unknown to me, my employer had me work for free?

I have been working for no wages under contract with my salary determined by the companies net revenue. The people I worked for were family friends and I didn’t suspect any underhanded dealings, but yesterday I was fired without cause and found out that my contract was never signed by my employers. So I’ve been working for free for months based on the promise of future pay from a contract that was never even signed. The owners of the company are moving out of the country in a month and I was wondering if there is anything I can do in that time?

Asked on July 27, 2015 under Employment Labor Law, California


SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 5 years ago | Contributor

If there was an agreement to pay you for your work based on the company's revenues and they violated that agreement, you could sue them for breach of contract to recover the money owed you. However, if the owners are moving out of the country--and thus effectively out of reach (technically, you can often sue someone in another country, but practically, it is very difficult and expensive to do so, and you are still not guaranteed to collect your money) you need to act NOW. There are ways to freeze or otherwise lock down assets (like money in bank accounts) in this country before they are moved offshore. However, these are not necessarily easy techniques for a non-lawyer, so you should speak with an attorney immediately about this situation. The lawyer can advise you if, as a practical matter, you have a viable case (there are a number of potential challenges: for example, if you were employed by a LLC or corporation, you could only sue the business, not the owner(s)--which means that if the LLC or corporation has been dissolved or simply is now an empty shell with no assets, you will not get any money) and, if you do, take steps on hold onto the assets while you bring the legal action.

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