By law, employers are required to pay employees for work they have completed. Payments are made in the form of wages or salary. If an employer withholds wages, then an employee may file a claim with a government entity to receive the lost wages. If the government entity does not recover the wages, then the individual who claims them may file a lawsuit to recover the wages or salary owed.

Why are Wages and Salaries Withheld?

Wages and salaries are withheld for several reasons. An employer may forget to pay an employee on time. An employer may not pay wages for a reason that is unlawful. Unlawful reasons include discrimination. An employer discriminates when it refuses to pay wages, for example, because of an employee’s gender, disability, race, or religion.

Employers also unlawfully withhold wages out of retaliation for an employee’s whistleblower complaint. Whistleblower complaints are complaints made about unethical, illegal, or unsafe business practices.

What Laws Protect Employees Whose Wages Have Not Been Paid?

States and the federal government have labor laws. These laws protect workers from wage theft. Wage theft takes place when an employer fails to pay an employee wages that are lawfully owed. 

Many states require employers to give employees written notice of how much and how frequently they will be paid. Employers who provide this notice must follow its terms. In addition, a number of states have laws requiring employers to pay wages by a certain date. Failure to pay by that date is considered unlawful. 

What Can an Employee Do to Recover Wages or Salary?

An employee who has not been paid wages may file a complaint with their state’s labor department. Most states have labor departments that assist employees with recovering unpaid wages. In the complaint, the employee must provide information about the non-payment. 

This information may include the number of hours or number of days for which wages or salary was not paid. The information may also include the dates for which, and on which, the payments should have been received.

When a state labor department receives a complaint from an employee, the department begins an investigation. An investigation may include requiring an employee to provide further details of their claim. An investigation may involve an interview of the employee, the employer, or both.

When the labor department completes its investigation, you will be notified in writing. If the decision is favorable to you, then the labor department will order the employer to pay the withheld wages. The state labor department may issue a decision denying your claim. 

If the labor department denies your claim, then its written notice of denial will notify you if you have any appeal rights. If you file an appeal of the decision, then the government body reviewing the appeal will determine whether the initial decision was correct. The appeal body may find the initial decision was wrong, and order that the wages be paid. The appeal body may find the initial decision was correct. 

Once you have exhausted (taken advantage of) all appeals your state provides without success, then you can file a private lawsuit in court. In the lawsuit, you can claim your case was incorrectly decided and that you are owed wages. If a court rules in your favor, then it can award you the money you are owed.

Can I File a Claim in State Court and Federal Court?

Failure to pay wages can be a violation of state law. Failure to pay wages may also violate the federal wage law, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). If the failure to pay wages violates both the law of your state and federal law, then you may be able to file a lawsuit under state and federal law. 

Typically, federal and state law lawsuits are combined into one proceeding, in state or federal court.. If the court finds the employer violated both state law and federal law, you can recover damages under state and federal law for the pay you should have received. Federal law, as well as the law of many states, may allow you to recover the costs of your attorney and the costs of filing the lawsuit. 

Can I be Terminated, Demoted, or Suspended for Filing a Claim?

Federal law and state laws prohibit an employer from taking an adverse action against employees who file claims for withheld wages. An adverse action is a substantial change in work duties, pay, or benefits of employment. 

Terminations, demotions to less desirable positions, and suspensions, are adverse actions. Employers who take adverse actions in retaliation for wage complaints are subject to fines and imprisonment.  

Do I Need the Help of a Lawyer With a Wage or Salary Issue?

If your wages or salary have been withheld, you should contact an employment lawyer. An experienced employment law attorney near you can advise you as to your rights. The lawyer can file required paperwork on your behalf with the proper government entity. The lawyer can also represent you at hearings and court proceedings.