While employers have some leeway about how and when they pay employees, strict federal laws regulate the payroll process. These laws give clearly defined rights to virtually every employee in the country who collects a paycheck -- but not necessarily independent contractors and freelancers. But when a business considers someone an employee, it is bound by federal regulations designed to protect workers from abuse or exploitation. In addition, many states supplement federal law with rules of their own.
Here are a few paycheck laws that your employer cannot break.
1. You have the right to be paid promptly
Federal law does not require employers to distribute pay in specific intervals (weekly, bimonthly, etc.), though state laws might. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which outlines employee compensation regulations, says that employers must pay their workers "promptly." While the wording is vague, it is generally accepted that pay -- which must come in the form of either cash or a "negotiable instrument" such as a check -- should be received as soon after the most recent pay period as possible. The employer may not withhold any payment, and employees can't be forced to kick back any portion of their wages. In most cases, employers are expected to pay employees for any overtime due to them on the same day that they receive their regular paycheck.
2. You have the right to be paid quickly after leaving a job
According to the Department of Labor, the federal government does not require employers to pay employees right away if they quit or are fired. But employees should be paid by the next regular payday following the last pay period they worked.
Many states have more stringent rules regarding timely payment of departing employees. Missouri, for example, requires employees to be paid immediately, but only if they were fired. There is no supplementary law for employees who quit. In Minnesota, employers also must pay right away if they fire an employee. But for those who quit, there is a complicated series of whichever-comes-first laws based on the last day the employee worked and the number of days between paydays.
3. You cannot be fired because your wages were garnished
Courts can order an employee's wages to be garnished for certain debts, such as child support. But Title III of the Consumer Credit Protection Act forbids employers from firing employees because they had their wages garnished once, even if the business has to endure multiple levies or proceedings in pursuit of collection. Your employer can fire you, however, for a second or subsequent garnishment. Most employees also have the right not to have their tips garnished.
4. You have the right to minimum wage, even if you work for tips
The minimum wage for tipped employees -- employees who earn at least $30 a month in tips -- is $2.13 an hour in direct wages. But if that wage combined with tips does not equal or surpass federal hourly minimum wage, the employer must make up the difference. Some states -- like Arizona, Colorado, Maine and West Virginia -- require employers to pay tipped employees more than the federal minimum. Other states -- like California, Montana and Oregon -- require employers to pay employees the full state minimum wage before tips.
5. You have the right to collect ordered back pay
Back pay is the difference between what an employee was entitled to and what he was actually paid. If an employer is ordered to pay an employee back pay to settle a wage dispute, the employee has the right to file a private suit for back wages, as well as an equal amount for liquidated damages, court costs and attorney's fees. The Fair Labor Standards Act also enables the Secretary of Labor to sue on the employee's behalf for back pay and liquidated damages.
6. Your employer cannot dock your pay as punishment for poor performance
According to U.S. News and World Report, it is illegal for an employer to deny or adjust compensation retroactively as punishment for poor performance -- or for any reason at all. Since an employee entered into an agreement to exchange labor for fixed compensation, the employer does not have the right to dock her pay. The employer may, however, alter an employee's pay going forward. In those cases, it must inform the employee of the rate change, and the employee reserves the right to accept or decline the new terms.
7. You cannot be docked for short breaks
According to the Department of Labor, employers don't have to compensate employees when they are on genuine meal breaks, which usually last at least a half hour. However, shorter, undocumented breaks -- often called "coffee breaks" -- are categorized differently. Employers are not required to allow these breaks, which generally last five to 20 minutes. But if they do, they must consider those breaks to be compensable and include that time in the hours worked. In short, employers don't have to give employees coffee breaks, but if they do, they have to pay them for that time.
How to deal with a paycheck law violation
If you feel that your employer is violating your rights as stated under the Fair Labor Standards Act and you cannot come to an agreement on your own, you should contact the U.S. Department of Labor, the agency charged with enforcing the act.
If you quit or are fired and the first payday passes without receiving compensation, you should contact the federal Wage and Hour Division. Or, if your state is among those with laws of its own that bolster federal regulations, you should contact your state labor division.
As with any legal dispute, document all interactions with your employer, including any requests for pay and notification of grievances. Keep records and write down dates of missed paydays or any other violations.
Employers are bound by strict federal laws that regulate paychecks and employee compensation. A wide range of laws governs everything from how records are kept to how withholdings are itemized on pay stubs. Employees must be paid promptly and in full. They can't be docked pay, and they can't have their pay rate changed without warning. Employees work for their bosses, but they are protected by their government.