The U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division administers federal wage laws and the state labor department oversees state wage policies. The federal and state labor department requires employers to pay employees wages in an accurate and timely manner. Failure to adhere comes with consequences.
Your employer is not supposed to deny you wages due for services rendered. It is supposed to pay you wages at the agreed-upon amount, and at no less than the federal or state minimum wage, whichever is higher. Your employer can refuse to pay you wages only if you did not perform the required services. For example, if you are paid hourly and work six hours on a specific workday instead of your normal eight hours, your employer is required to pay you only six hours for that day. Though your employer is not legally required to give employee fringe benefits, such as vacation, holiday, sick and personal time, it is considered wages if it chooses to give them.
Speak with your employer once you realize that you have been underpaid or not paid at all. Your employer may be willing to compensate you immediately for wages due, plus any bank charges you incurred if the error was the employer’s fault. If your employer refuses to pay you wages, contact your state labor department or the U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division, for its procedures on filing a wage claim. The department may not handle payment for fringe benefits. You can file a lawsuit in small claims court to recover wages and fringe benefits due to you, or you can hire an employment law attorney.
The department of labor or court will investigate your claim and can order your employer to pay you back wages, liquidated damages and in some cases a waiting penalty. Liquidated damages can equal your unpaid wages, and is also called double back pay or double damages. The waiting penalty depends on state law. For example, the state of California assesses a waiting penalty if the violation occurred and was within the employer’s control, if the employer knew what it was doing when it refused to pay wages due, and based on the fact that the employer failed to comply with the law. A waiting penalty is attached to each day the employee was not paid, up to 30 days. The court can also order the employer to reimburse you for attorney or court costs.
The statute of limitations for filing a wage claim under federal law is two years. If your employer purposely broke the law, you have up to three years to file a claim. In many cases, your employer has 30 days from the decision date to pay you awarded amounts.
Grace Ferguson has been writing professionally since 2009. With 10 years of experience in employee benefits and payroll administration, Ferguson has written extensively on topics relating to employment and finance. A research writer as well, she has been published in The Sage Encyclopedia and Mission Bell Media.