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What Is Wage Theft? When Can You Sue?

By Daniel Taylor, Esq. | Last updated on

It's long been a sad reality that "business as usual" for many hourly and low-wage workers meant getting shorted on overtime pay, getting paid for fewer hours than actually worked, and being forced to work through breaks.

However, an increasing number of workers have discovered a powerful tool for fighting back against being shortchanged by employers: a wage theft lawsuit. According to The New York Times, lawsuits seeking to recover wages illegally withheld from employees are increasingly paying off for employees of companies big and small.

What is wage theft, and how can you legally enforce your rights as an employee?

Wage Theft Lawsuits

Wage theft lawsuits are the general name given to a wide array of violations of state and federal wage and hour laws. Among the more common complaints leading to wage theft lawsuits are:

  • Underreported hours. The California Labor Commission told The New York Times about a janitorial company that was recently forced to pay over $330,000 in back pages to workers who cleaned supermarkets. The workers were told to sign blank timecards which the employer then filled out with fewer hours than the employee had worked.
  • No overtime pay. A 2013 lawsuit against a New York McDonald's alleged that bosses at the restaurant altered timecards to avoid showing and having to pay for employee overtime. In a more elaborate attempt to avoid paying overtime, FedEx tried labeling the company's delivery drivers as independent contractors, who are not covered by the same overtime rules as regular employee. Unfortunately, a federal judge disagreed with the company's characterization.
  • Stolen tips. Sometimes wage theft is more along the lines of actual theft, such as one upscale Manhattan Italian restaurant that was sued for allegedly withholding employees' tips, keeping a percentage for themselves and divvying up the rest in a tip pool.
  • Working through breaks. Many states require that employees be given time to rest during a shift. Being forced to work through these breaks can be grounds for a lawsuit. For example in 2011, Walmart was forced to pay $187 million dollars after Pennsylvania employees were reportedly pressured to skip the rest breaks required by state law.

How to Enforce Wage and Hour Laws

If you believe you are being unfairly underpaid, you can file a complaint with state and federal labor authorities, such as the United States Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division.

You can also consult with an experienced employment lawyer who can advise you on how to proceed with a wage theft lawsuit, and represent you in negotiations with your employer, and in court if your lawsuit goes to trial.

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