What's Your Unpaid Wage Claim Worth in Colorado?

Learn how to calculate what you're owed in unpaid wages and penalties in Colorado.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

In Colorado, federal and state law determine when and how much employees must be paid. If your employer has not paid you properly or in a timely fashion, you may be entitled to recover not only your unpaid wages, but also penalties intended to punish your employer for wage violations. This article explains how to calculate and claim the money you are owed.

Unpaid Wages

Employees must be paid the highest minimum wage that applies where they work, whether that's the federal, state, or local rate. Colorado's state minimum wage of $12.00 (in 2020) is higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25. If the city or county where you work has an even higher minimum wage, you are entitled to that amount.

To calculate your unpaid minimum wage claim, take the difference between what you were actually paid per hour and what you should have been paid per hour. For example, if your employer paid you $2 less than the minimum wage for 100 hours of work, you would be entitled to $200.

If you receive tips at your job, your employer can pay you a lower hourly wage, as long as you make enough in tips to bring your hourly compensation to at least the state minimum wage. In Colorado, employers may take a tip credit of up to $3.02. For 2020, this means that employers may pay tipped employees $8.98 per hour. However, if an employee doesn't earn enough in tips to earn at least the state minimum wage, the employer must pay the difference. To learn more on these rules, see Colorado Laws for Tipped Employees.

Unpaid Overtime

Failing to pay the overtime premium is one of the most common wage violations by employers. Colorado employees are entitled to overtime if they work more than 40 hours in a workweek, more than 12 hours in a day, or more than 12 consecutive hours (if, for example, those hours span two calendar days).

Not all employees are entitled to earn overtime, however. While hourly, nonexempt employees have a right to overtime, other categories of employees are exempt. The most common exemptions are for outside salespeople and "white-collar" employees who do professional, managerial, and high-level administrative work (see our overtime page for more details and exemption categories). Unless your employer can prove that you fit into one of these narrow exemptions, you are entitled to receive overtime.

If your employer has failed to pay you for overtime hours, your unpaid wages are the difference between what you should have been paid and what you were paid. For overtime hours, employees are entitled to time-and-a-half. This means that you're owed an extra 50% of your hourly rate, on top of your regular pay. For example, if you are usually paid $16 an hour, you should be paid $24 an hour for overtime work.

Example: Roman works the night shift at a manufacturing plant, 9 p.m. until 5 a.m., four days week. On his last workday of the week, his manager asks him to work a double shift. Roman works another eight hours past his 5 a.m. stop time, until 1 p.m. Although he only worked 40 hours for the week, he worked 16 consecutive hours due to the double shift. He is entitled to overtime pay for every hour after the first 12, or four hours of overtime.

Unpaid Breaks and Time Off

Federal law doesn't require employers to let employees take meal or rest breaks during the workday. However, Colorado law gives most employees the right to take an unpaid 30-minute meal break once they have worked five hours. Colorado employees are also entitled to a paid, ten-minute rest break for every four hours (or major fraction of four hours) worked.

If your employer fails to pay you for shorter breaks, or makes you work through your meal break, you may be entitled to be paid for that time. Under federal law, employees must be paid for:

  • any short breaks (lasting 20 minutes or less) during the workday, and
  • any time during which you must work, even if your employer calls it a break. For example, if an office receptionist must eat lunch at her desk in order to cover the phones and accept deliveries, she is entitled to be paid for that time—even if her employer calls it a "lunch break."

To calculate your unpaid break wages, add up how much time you spent on shorter breaks that should have been paid or breaks that you had to work through. Multiply this extra time by your hourly rate. And don't forget overtime: Breaks for which you should have been paid count as hours worked, which means they may push your total hours for the week above 40 per workweek.

Penalties for Unpaid Wages

Federal and state law give employees the right to collect penalties in addition to the wages they should have been paid, if they win their administrative claims or lawsuits. Some of these penalties are described below; additional penalties may be available under state or local law.

Liquidated Damages

Federal law gives employees the right to ask for liquidated damages for overtime and minimum wage violations. Liquidated damages are intended to compensate you for financial losses that are difficult to measure, such as fees you may have had to pay for bounced checks, late charges, and so on. If you win a lawsuit or an administrative hearing, you can receive liquidated damages in an amount equal to your unpaid wages. For example, if your employer failed to pay you $2,000 in overtime pay, you can be awarded $2,000 in unpaid wages and $2,000 in liquidated damages, for a total recovery of $4,000.

Final Paychecks

Colorado law also provides for penalties if you don't receive your final paycheck on time (or your final paycheck doesn't include everything that you're owed). Colorado sets certain time limits by which your employer must provide your final check. If you are fired or laid off, your employer must provide your final paycheck immediately, or if your payroll office is already closed, within six hours after the start of the next work day (if the payroll office is on-site) or within 24 hours ( if the payroll office is off-site). If you quit, you must receive your final paycheck by the next regularly scheduled payday.

If you don't receive your final check on time, you may send a written demand for it to your employer. If your employer doesn't provide the check within 14 days of receiving your written demand, you can be awarded the larger of either:

  • your daily earnings for every day the check is late, up to ten days, or
  • 125% of the unpaid wages for the first $7,500 owed and 50% of the unpaid wages for any amount owed over $7,500.

If your employer's failure to provide your final paycheck is willful, the penalty is increased by an additional 50%.

Filing a Wage Claim or Lawsuit

If your employer failed to pay you all of the wages you earned, you can either file a wage complaint with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE) or file a lawsuit in court. (Colorado has posted its wage claim form—called a Request for Mediation: Wage and Labor Law Complaint Form—online.)

If you aren't comfortable filing your own complaint or you want to go straight to court, talk to an experienced Colorado wage and hour lawyer about representing you. A lawyer can file a wage claim for you with the CDLE or file a lawsuit in court. If you win, your attorney can ask the judge to make your employer pay for your attorneys' fees.

Whether you plan to file a wage claim or hire an attorney to represent you, you should move quickly. In Colorado, you have only two years to file your wage claim or your lawsuit based on state or federal wage laws. This means that you can't claim any wages that were due more than two years before you file your claim or lawsuit. If your employer's violation was willful, you have three years to file your claim or lawsuit. An attorney can tell you if you have any other claims, such as a breach of contract claim, to which different time limits typically apply.

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