When an Employer Won't Pay What Is Owed

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The United States Department of Labor requires an employer to pay his employees promptly and accurately. Many states have minimum paydays that an employer must pay employees by. The employer can pay more often, but not less. If your employer owes you wages or salaries, you can take certain actions to fix the situation.

Speak with Employer

If you are due wages or salary, speak with your employer as soon as you detect the problem. The penalties for refusing to pay employees are severe and it’s likely your employer prefers to avoid them. The issue could also be due to a payroll error that your employer is unaware of. Give him a reasonable amount of time to fix the problem, such as by the next regular payday then resort to legal measures if he refuses to. Ensure you are right about what your employer actually owes you before seeking legal help. For example, if you terminated from the company, state law might allow your employer to make deductions from your final wages if you owe the company money.

Federal Wage Claim

You can file a wage claim with the U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division, if your employer did not pay you at least the federal minimum hourly wage or overtime wages for work hours exceeding more than 40 hours for the week. Contact your local wage and hour division to file a wage claim. Give the division pertinent information to support your claim, such as pay stubs or employment contract. File your claim within two years from when the unpaid wages were due and within three years if your employer intentionally violated the law.

Read More: What is the Federal Minimum Wage?

State Wage Claim

Your state might require a higher minimum wage and overtime for work hours exceeding a certain amount for the day. You can file a wage claim with your state labor department to recover unpaid wages and salary, plus additional pay such as vacation or holiday, if the department allows you to. Contact your state labor department for its procedures on filing a wage claim and the time frame in which to do so; for example, the state of Texas gives you up to 180 days from when the unpaid wages were due. Most states allow you to access the wage claim form on their website.

Private Lawsuit

You can file a private lawsuit to recover unpaid wages; contact your county courthouse for procedures. If the amount owed does not exceed the maximum amount you can sue for, you can file the lawsuit in small claims court. Another alternative is to hire a wage attorney. If the judge rules in your favor, she can order your employer to reimburse you for attorney or court costs plus applicable damages.


Under federal law, your employer can face criminal prosecution and fine of up to $10,000 for purposely violating federal minimum wage and overtime laws.