Employee Wage Rights


What Is Considered Unpaid Wages?

Posted by Eric Kingsley | Apr 23, 2024 | 0 Comments

Picture this: you've put in the hard work, clocked the hours, but your paycheck doesn't reflect your efforts. Sound familiar? You're not alone. Unpaid wages are a harsh reality for many employees, leaving them feeling powerless and exploited. But here's the thing - you have rights, and it's time to stand up for them.

Unpaid wages folder

In this post, we'll arm you with the knowledge you need to tackle unpaid wages head-on. We'll dive into the nitty-gritty of what constitutes wage theft, the legal protections in place, and the steps you can take to recover what's rightfully yours. No more silent suffering - it's time to fight back and get the compensation you deserve.

Table of Contents:

Understanding Unpaid Wages and Overtime Pay

When it comes to getting paid, there's nothing worse than putting in the hours and not seeing that hard-earned money hit your bank account. It's a gut-wrenching feeling that no one should have to experience. But the sad truth is, unpaid wages and overtime violations are all too common in the workplace. 

Unpaid wages refer to any compensation that an employee has rightfully earned but hasn't received from their employer. This can include regular hourly pay, overtime, commissions, bonuses, and even vacation time or sick leave that's been accrued. Some common scenarios where unpaid wages occur are when employers fail to pay for all hours worked, withhold final paychecks after termination, or misclassify employees as exempt from overtime pay. 

It's a shady practice that leaves hardworking folks shortchanged.

Federal Overtime Regulations

Now let's talk about overtime. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), most employees are entitled to overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours in a week. And get this - that overtime rate has to be at least one-and-a-half times their regular hourly wage. So if you're a non-exempt employee logging extra hours, you better be seeing that time-and-a-half pay reflected in your paycheck. And here's a little-known fact: you're also owed wages for any work done before or after your scheduled shift and during breaks.

Legal Steps to Recover Unpaid Wages

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So what can you do if you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of having unpaid wages? First and foremost, don't let it slide. You've got rights and there are legal steps you can take to recover what's rightfully yours. 

One option is to file a wage claim with your state's labor department or the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division. This involves submitting a complaint that details the unpaid wages you're owed and any supporting documentation you have. The agency will then investigate your claim and, if they find it valid, can order your employer to pay up. It's a formal process, but it can be effective in getting you the money you're due.

Seeking Legal Counsel

Another route is to seek the help of an employment attorney who specializes in wage and hour cases. They can review your situation, advise you on the best course of action, and even represent you in a lawsuit against your employer if necessary. 

In fact, if you were fired or faced retaliation for complaining about unpaid wages, or if the violation was willful, you may have grounds for a strong legal case. An unpaid wage attorney can help you navigate the complexities of employment law and fight for your rights in court. 

As an employee in California, you're in luck - the state has some of the most protective overtime laws in the country. Under California law, you're entitled to overtime pay not just for hours worked over 40 in a week, but also for any hours worked over 8 in a single day. And if you work more than 12 hours in a day or over 8 hours on the 7th consecutive day of work? You're looking at double-time pay. 

That's right, twice your regular hourly rate. It's a sweet deal that ensures workers are fairly compensated for putting in those extra hours.

The Role of Human Resources in Wage Disputes

If you're dealing with unpaid wages, your company's human resources department can be a valuable resource. HR professionals are trained to handle a variety of employee issues, including wage disputes. In fact, going to HR should be one of your first steps if you believe you're owed unpaid wages. They can review your case, investigate the discrepancy, and work with payroll to ensure you receive any compensation you're due. 

HR can also help mediate disputes between employees and managers, and ensure that the company is complying with all applicable wage and hour laws. So don't hesitate to bring your concerns to their attention - it's part of their job to help ensure fair treatment of employees. 

It's an unfortunate reality, but sometimes unpaid wages can be a result of discrimination in the workplace. If you believe you've been denied pay or had wages withheld due to your race, gender, age, disability, or other protected characteristic, you may have a discrimination claim on your hands. In these cases, it's crucial to involve the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). 

The EEOC is a federal agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, and they have the power to investigate and prosecute employers who engage in discriminatory pay practices. Filing a charge with the EEOC can be a powerful tool in combating wage discrimination and holding employers accountable. And if the EEOC finds evidence of discrimination, they can help you recover not only your unpaid wages, but also additional damages for the harm caused by the discriminatory treatment.

Strategies Employers Use to Withhold Wages

As an employee, it's important to be aware of some common tactics that unscrupulous employers may use to avoid paying wages. One such strategy is requiring employees to work "off-the-clock" - basically, performing job duties without pay. 

This can take the form of asking employees to come in early or stay late without compensation, or having them work through their legally mandated breaks. It's a sneaky way for employers to get free labor and skirt overtime requirements. 

Another tactic is misclassifying employees as exempt from overtime pay when they should rightfully be non-exempt. Employers may give workers fancy titles like "manager" or "supervisor" to make it seem like they're not entitled to overtime, even though their actual job duties tell a different story. 

The key is to know your rights and be vigilant in tracking your hours worked. If you suspect your employer is engaging in any of these shady practices, document everything and consider filing a complaint with the appropriate agency or seeking legal counsel.

Key Takeaway: 

Getting shortchanged on your paycheck hurts. If it happens, don't stay quiet. File a wage claim or get legal help to fight back.


Unpaid wages and employee rights - it's a battle that far too many of us have faced. But armed with the right knowledge and tools, you can stand up for yourself and demand what's rightfully yours.

Kingsley Szamet & Ly

Remember, wage theft is illegal, and you have legal protections on your side. Whether it's filing a wage claim, seeking legal counsel, or understanding your state's specific laws, there are steps you can take to recover your hard-earned compensation.

Don't let employers take advantage of you any longer. Know your rights, speak up, and take action. Your work has value, and it's time to make sure you're paid fairly for it. 

About the Author

Eric Kingsley

Eric B. Kingsley is a 2023 "Best In Law" Award winner and has litigated over 150 class actions. He is also an AV peer rated attorney and a prolific speaker at various seminars on employment law.


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