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Can I Sue My Employer for Not Paying Me?

How to Report Unpaid Wages and Recover Back Pay

Imagine how frustrating it would be to have your employer refuse to pay you for your work. While it is rare, this does happen from time to time. There are various reasons this would happen. Perhaps your employer doesn't have the money to pay you and your coworkers. Or your manager may believe you lied about the hours you've worked.

The good news is that federal law dictates employers pay their staff for their work hours. Companies must also pay their employees the correct amount. They can't shortchange you by paying you less than you earned. Violating these laws is "wage theft."

If your employer doesn't pay you what you deserve, you should talk to an employment lawyer. You may need to sue your employer depending on how much you demand. Your employment law attorney can help determine if this is the best way to proceed.

This article will explain your rights when it comes to your earned wages. It will also discuss what to do if your employer fails to pay you under the law.

Who Enforces Wage and Hours Laws?

The U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division (WHD) enforces the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA dictates when and how employers must pay their workers.

Under this act, employers must pay hourly employees time and a half (overtime) for any hours above 40 per week. This law also states that employers must pay all employees at least minimum wage.

State and local labor laws exist besides the federal rules the Department of Labor sets. Cities and states are continually advancing the regulations in place to help workers.

For more information, see FindLaw's Wage and Hour Laws section.

Can You Sue a Company for Underpaying You?

You can sue your employer if you're underpaid. You'll need to submit a claim through WHD and wait for the department to investigate the claim. It will decide if your claim is valid, and if so, they'll submit a legal order to your employer to pay you your missing wages.

This is a common remedy for wage violations. Your employer must pay the difference between what they paid you and what you should have received. This difference is "back pay."

If your WHD claim isn't successful, you can consider suing your employer in small claims court.

What Factors Does the WHD Consider When Reviewing Your Claim?

Labor laws and wage laws can be tricky. Your ability to sue or recover missing wages depends on many factors.

Some of these factors include:

  • Are you an exempt employee (salary) or an hourly employee?
  • Do you make the federal minimum wage or state minimum wage?
  • Are you an independent contractor (I.C.)?
  • Do you work a non-traditional workweek?
  • Is there a class-action lawsuit against the company (if other employees also want backpay or are missing wages)?
  • Was the money missing from your last pay period, or could it be in your next paycheck?
  • Did you work overtime hours?

These are all critical considerations in your wage claim and things your employment lawyer will want to discuss.

Can You Sue When an Employer Doesn't Pay You?

You can sue your employer if they don't pay you. But, you cannot bring a private lawsuit if any of the following conditions exist:

  • Your employer paid you back wages under an order from the WHD
  • The Secretary of Labor already sued your employer on your behalf
  • The two-year statute of limitations has passed. (Note: In the case of a willful violation, a three-year statute of limitations applies

It's worth pointing out that your employer can't fire or discriminate against you for filing a complaint. If your employer fires you, fails to promote you, or otherwise takes action against you due to your wage claim, it is retaliation and is illegal.

How To Report Unpaid Wages and Recover Back Pay: Submitting a Worker Complaint

The WHD conducts its investigations according to the FLSA. If you're missing pay, you must file a complaint immediately. This will trigger an investigation, and if your claim is valid, the department will order your employer to pay you what you deserve.

(We'll describe the process of wage theft enforcement below, along with different methods you can use to recover unpaid wages and overtime pay.)

Many employees worry that their employer will fire or discipline them for filing a complaint. The good news is that all WHD complaints are confidential. The WHD won't disclose your name and the nature of your complaint.

Note: Sometimes, revealing your identity is necessary to pursue an allegation. Your employment attorney will explain this process if it becomes relevant.

The type of information you need to file a complaint includes:

  • Your name
  • Your address and phone number
  • The name of the company where you work or worked
  • The company's address
  • The names of the managers or owners
  • The type of work you did
  • Your typical hours and rate of pay
  • How and when your employer paid you

More information, such as copies of pay stubs, personal records of hours worked, or other evidence of the employer's pay practices, is helpful.

WHD's services are free and confidential, whether you are a documented or legal employee.

Investigations Into Wage Theft or Back Pay

WHD selects certain types of businesses or industries for investigations along with investigating complaints. Sometimes, they will investigate several companies in a specific sector or region.

A WHD investigation involves several steps:

  1. A conference between the WHD representative and business representatives where they explain the investigation process
  2. Examining company records to determine what laws or exemptions apply to the business and its employees
  3. Examination of time and payroll records
  4. Private interviews and fact-finding with individual employees to verify the time and payroll records
  5. Interviews on the employer's premises and, in some situations, the WHD interviews present and former employees at their homes, by phone, by mail, or by email
  6. The WHD notifies the employer of any violations
  7. The WHD representative tells the company how to correct its violations
  8. If the company owes any back wages, it must pay them

Of course, every case is different. When you meet with your legal counsel, they'll help determine if someone owes you wages. They'll also communicate with the labor department on your behalf before and after the investigation.

Recovery of Back Wages

It's one thing to prove your employer owes you back wages. It's another to collect them. Your attorney will fight to ensure your employer pays you for your hours.

The following are the methods the FLSA and Department of Labor offers to help workers recover unpaid wages and overtime wages:

  1. The WHD may supervise the payment of back wages.
  2. The Secretary of Labor may bring a lawsuit for back wages and an equal amount as liquidated damages.
  3. An employee may file a private lawsuit against an employer for back pay and an equal amount as liquidated damages, plus attorney's fees and court costs.
  4. The Secretary of Labor may obtain an injunction to restrain the company from violating the FLSA, including the unlawful withholding of proper minimum wage and overtime pay.

Liquidated damages are like interest on your missing back pay. The amount you get depends on how much your employer owes you and the time it takes to recover your unpaid wages.

Penalties for Not Paying Employees

Employers who violate minimum wage or overtime laws are subject to civil penalties. These penalties include fines of up to $1,000 for each willful violation.

Willful violations of the FLSA may also result in criminal prosecution. The violator can be subject to a fine of up to $10,000 for each offense. A second conviction may result in imprisonment.

If you believe your employer owes you back wages collected by WHD, you can search the WHD's database of workers and submit a claim.

Report Unpaid Wages and Recover Back Pay With an Attorney's Help

If your employer hasn't paid your entire wages on payday, seek legal advice. Some attorneys offer a free initial consultation to help determine if you have a claim.

It's a good idea to research your state laws on wages and hours and gather evidence before you meet with your attorney.

Back pay and unpaid wage disputes can be highly contentious. A lawyer can help get you the money you deserve and hold your employer accountable.

Contact a local employment attorney today to learn how they can help you get paid what you earned.

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