Filing a Claim for Unpaid Wages

You go to work to get paid. Like thousands of other American workers, you might also get a sense of personal fulfillment or an opportunity to express yourself creatively through your job, but unless you have other sufficient means of income, your paycheck is one of the key reasons why you show up to work each day.

If you do not receive a paycheck that reflects the hours you worked, or you do not receive a paycheck at all, you could have grounds for an unpaid wages claim. There are many ways an employer can deny an employee his or her pay, and all of them are illegal. Do not allow yourself to miss out on the wages you rightfully earn.

How Can an Employer Deny Wages?

There are lots of ways an employer can deny his or her employees the wages they earn. Some of these denial tactics are more obvious than others. If you have experienced any of the following, you could have grounds for an unpaid wages claim against your employer:

Underpaying tipped employees. The federal minimum wage for tipped employees, such as restaurant servers and bartenders, is $2.13 per hour. In some states, this wage is higher or even on par with the standard minimum wage for non-tipped employees. A tipped employee may receive this wage because it is assumed that his or her tips will make up the difference between the tipped and the standard minimum wage. However, when the employee’s tips do not cause him or her to reach at least minimum wage, the employer is required to make up the difference in cash. An employer who does not do this may be determined to be denying employees their correct wages.

Deducting so much from employee checks that the checks fall below minimum wage. There are certain reasons why an employer may deduct pay from their employees’ paychecks, such as to cover debts owed to the employer or to pay for expenses like employee benefits. These deductions may not cause the employee bring home less than the applicable minimum wage.

Failure to pay the employee for every hour worked. This is known as an hours violation, and may be committed through any of the following actions:

  • Having employees perform work duties before clocking in or after clocking out, thus working “off the clock.”
  • Failing to pay employees for work-related activities, such as mandatory training classes.
  • Making employees work through their designated meal or rest breaks.
  • In certain cases, failing to pay employees for their travel time. This is only applicable if travel time is part of the employee’s shift, such as landscapers having to go to their employer’s office to pick up work equipment, then travel to the client’s home or business site.

Denying a salesperson his or her commission, if he or she is entitled to receive one.

Failure to pay an employee his or her promised benefits. These may include paid sick time, personal time, or paid vacation days. Although an employer is not required to provide these, promising a benefit in writing and then failing to provide it or an equitable compensation for it, such as paying an employee for unused sick time when he or she leaves the company, is a form of wage denial.

Paying employees with fraudulent checks.

Simply not paying an employee for the hours he or she worked.

Handling a Wage or Hour Violation

Wage violations are illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which also governs minimum wage, hourly, and child labor regulations in the United States. All wage and hour-related violations of this law are investigated and handled by the Wage and Hour Division of the United States Department of Labor.

If you experience any of the forms of wage denial listed above, begin documenting your hours worked and the wages you are supposed to receive. How you document your unpaid wages depends on how they were denied. If your unpaid wages came in the form of failure to pay for your vacation or sick time, you can easily prove the denial by providing a copy of your employment contract that states you are entitled to receive these benefits. If you were denied wages in a less obvious way, such as your employer failing to make up the difference between your tipped wages and the standard minimum wage, it can be more difficult to prove that you did not receive the money you were entitled to receive. One way you can prove this is to keep a meticulous record of the tips you receive, your paychecks, and your total sales. This final piece of information can help by demonstrating the amount of tips you should reasonably have received.

Sometimes, you might not receive a paycheck or receive less than you are entitled to receive because of an accounting error. If this happens, bring it to your employer’s attention before seeking legal counsel or filing an unpaid wages claim. You may be able to solve it internally much more quickly and easily than it would be to do so through legal measures.

Filing Your Unpaid Wages Claim

If you cannot resolve your unpaid wages issue within your company, you need to file an unpaid wages claim with the Wage and Hour Division. The Wage and Hour Division will then investigate your claim to determine if you have the right to collect unpaid wages.

You also have the option to file a lawsuit against your employer for unpaid wages. If your claim is denied by the Wage and Hour Division, a lawsuit could be your only option for seeking unpaid wages. Contact an experienced employment attorney and provide him or her with all evidence you have of your wage denial to determine whether you have grounds for a lawsuit. If so, your case may then go to court and a settlement may be determined by the judge.