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Workers' Legal Rights to Fair Wages and Overtime Pay

Nearly 50 years ago, the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring employers to pay most workers a "minimum wage" for all hours worked, plus overtime pay whenever employees work more than 40 hours per week.

Today, that Federal law, called the Fair Labor Standards Act, guarantees more than 90% of all employees in the United States the right to minimum wages and overtime pay for the work they do. It doesn't matter how a worker is paid: an hourly wage, bonuses or commissions, or salary.

Most workers have rights under the law. Unfortunately, some employers repeatedly violate the law and fail to pay employees the money they have earned. It is important that you know your rights.

Minimum Wage

Employees have a right to be paid for all hours they work. Most activities at work count as "work" under the law. Generally speaking, the law says that "work" means any tasks or duties that an employer directs a worker to complete or allows the worker to complete, whether at the workplace or not.

The worker is entitled to be paid time spent producing and completing tasks for the employer during the work day. Also have the right to be paid if he or she arrives early, stays late, or takes work home.

Employees also must be paid for time spent waiting for work during the workday because of machinery breakdowns, delivery delays, or a shortage of customers. Additionally, if an employer requires the employee to be on-call, often the worker must be paid for that time.

Federal law requires employers to pay workers a minimum wage per hour for every hour an employee spends working. Sometimes this hourly wage can be lower for trainees, as long as the employer follows certain rules. The hourly rate may also be lower if a worker receives tips or commissions, as long as the tips bring the total pay for every hour worked up to at least the minimum wage per hour.


Even for employees who receive more than the minimum wage per hour, the Fair Labor Standards Act is still important because it requires employers to pay overtime wages. An employer must pay 1.5 times the hourly rate for each hour worked over 40 hours in a week. For example, if an employee is paid $10.00 per hour and works 55 hours one week, that employee is entitled to $10.00 per hour for the first 40 hours of work ($400.00) and $15.00 per hour for all hours over 40 hours ($225.00). This employee is entitled to $625.00 for 55 hours of work, not $550.00.

Sometimes employers constantly change the number of days in the work week in order to avoid paying overtime wages. But the law prohibits this. The law requires the work week to end on the same day every week. The employer may not assign hours to a different week to prevent an employee from getting paid for more than 40 hours of work.

Who is Entitled to Overtime?

Workers who receive an hourly wage must be paid overtime whenever they work more than 40 hours per week. But the right to overtime pay does not depend on the worker being paid an hourly wage, a salary or a combination of wages and commissions. The employer may pay a salary, but still be required to pay overtime wages, depending on the type of work.

The law does not require an employer to pay overtime to certain "white collar" employees who are paid salaries. "White collar" employees include executives, professionals and some managerial and administrative personnel with significant supervisory responsibility. Doctors, some nurses, and business executives, for example, do not receive overtime if they are paid on a salary basis.

If a job does not fall into one of these categories, and the worker receives a salary, the salary must include enough pay for the regular workweek of 40 hours plus overtime pay for all additional hours. For example, administrative assistants, bookkeepers and certain truck drivers whose work hours are not subject to regulation by the Secretary of Transportation must receive overtime compensation. Often, salaried workers need a qualified employment lawyer to help determine whether an employee who is entitled to overtime pay.

The Fair Labor Standards Act has special rules for government workers. Firefighters, police officers, public safety workers and emergency workers, for example, are still entitled to overtime pay, but their work-weeks are longer than 40 hours.

Further, the rules are often different for each type of public worker. If a person is classified as a firefighter, but performs the duties of an emergency medical technician, he or she may be entitled to different amounts of overtime based on the classification.

If you have questions about your entitlement to overtime wages and you are a public employee, consult a qualified employment lawyer who is experienced in this area.

Enforcing Your Rights

If a worker is not paid overtime for a few hours a week, the amount of money lost can seem small. In the long run, however, the money can add up to thousands of dollars in lost wages. Employees who have not been paid as the law requires have the right to bring a Federal lawsuit against their employers to recover wages and overtime pay. If the worker wins the case, the employer must pay the difference between the amount of pay received and the amount which should have been paid.

The law allows recovery of unpaid back wages for the three years before you suit was filed and requires the employer to pay two times the back wages as a penalty for violating the law. The employer must also pay attorney's fees.

If you believe that your rights to wages and overtime have been violated, you should contact an experienced employment attorney to investigate your case. Wage and hour law is a specialized area and often requires the skills of an attorney with experience in representing employees.

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