What's Your Unpaid Wage Claim Worth in Georgia?

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

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

Although Georgia has not passed its own wage and hours laws, Georgia employers must comply with the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which establishes the minimum wage and overtime rules. 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.

Unpaid Wages

Employees must be paid at least the minimum wage for each hour they work. You are entitled to be paid the highest applicable minimum wage where you work, whether that's the federal, state, or local rate. Although Georgia has a minimum wage ($5.15), it is less than the current federal minimum wage of $7.25. As a result, employees in Georgia are entitled to the federal minimum wage, unless their municipal or county government has a higher minimum wage.

To calculate your unpaid minimum wage claim, simply take the difference between what you were actually paid per hour and what you should have been paid per hour, and then multiply that amount by the total number of hours you worked. For example, if your employer paid you the state minimum wage for your first three weeks of full-time work, you would be entitled to an additional $2.10 ($7.25−$5.15) an hour times 120 hours (40 hours × 3), for a total of $252.

If you receive tips at your job, your employer can pay you a lower hourly wage – as little as $2.13 an hour – as long as you earn enough in tips to bring your total hourly pay up to the federal minimum wage. To learn more, see Georgia Laws for Tipped Employees.

Unpaid Overtime

Failing to pay employees properly for overtime is one of the most common wage violations by employers. In Georgia, employees are entitled to overtime if they work more than 40 hours in a workweek.

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 $8 an hour, you are entitled to $12 an hour for overtime hours.

Example: Jan usually works four eight-hour shifts per week (32 hours total). If she has to work a couple of extra hours two days per week, she would not be entitled to overtime, because her total weekly hours would still be less than 40. If, however, she worked five eight-hour shifts, then had to work two extra hours on two days of the week, she would be entitled to four hours of overtime (in addition to 40 hours at her regular rate).

Unpaid Breaks and Time Off

Neither federal nor Georgia law gives employees the right to take meal or rest breaks during the workday. However, if your employer chooses to let you take breaks, you may be entitled to pay for that time. You are entitled to 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

In addition to paying you the wages you should have received for the above wage violations, Georgia employers can also be required to pay liquidated damages. Liquidated damages are intended to compensate you for other financial losses that are difficult to measure, such as fees you may have had to pay for bounced checks, late charges, and so on.

An employee who wins in court or an administrative hearing can be awarded liquidated damages in an amount equal to his or her unpaid wages. For example, if your employer failed to pay you $1,200 in overtime, you would be entitled to an additional $1,200 in liquidated damages, or $2,400 total.

Filing a Wage Claim or Lawsuit

If your employer failed to pay you all of the wages you earned, you can either file a complaint with the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor or file a lawsuit. Georgia doesn't have its own state enforcement process.

The Wage and Hour Division may investigate your complaint. If it finds that your employer has violated the law, it can supervise the payment of any wages you are owed, settle your claim with the employer, or file a lawsuit on your behalf (this is very rare).

If you aren't comfortable filing a complaint on your own behalf, or you have a large or complicated wage claim, talk to an experienced Georgia wage and hour lawyer about representing you. A lawyer can file a wage claim on your behalf or file a lawsuit in court. If you win, your attorney can ask the judge to make your employer pay your attorneys' fees.

Whether you plan to file a wage claim or hire an attorney to represent you, you should move quickly. In Georgia, you have two years from the date when your employer violates the FLSA (or the date you learn of the violation) to sue or file an administrative claim over unpaid wages. If your employer violated the law willfully, you have three years to file a claim or lawsuit for your wages. A lawyer can also 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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