What's Your Unpaid Wage Claim Worth in Illinois?

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

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

In Illinois, federal and state law determine how much you must be paid and when. If your employer has failed to pay 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 violating the law. Below, we explain how to calculate what you're owed and how to assert your wage and hour rights.

Unpaid Wages

Employees must be paid at least the minimum wage per hour. You are entitled to the highest minimum wage that applies where you work, whether that's the federal, state, or local rate. The Illinois minimum wage is $8.25 an hour. Because this is higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25, Illinois employees are entitled to the state minimum wage. If the city or county where you work has a higher minimum wage, like Chicago, you are entitled to that amount.

To calculate your unpaid minimum wage, 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 the federal minimum wage rather than the state minimum wage for your first two weeks of full-time work, you would be entitled to an additional $1 ($8.25−$7.25) times 80 hours (40 hours × 2), or $80.

If you receive tips at your job, your employer can pay you a lower hourly wage, as long as your tips bring your wages up to the state minimum wage. In Illinois, employers may pay tipped employees as little as $4.95 an hour. However, if you don't make enough in tips to earn at least the minimum wage, your employer must pay the difference. To learn more, see Illinois Laws for Tipped Employees.

Unpaid Overtime

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

Not all employees are entitled to earn overtime for extra hours, though. 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 $10 an hour, you must be paid $15 an hour for overtime work.

Example: Betsy is a cashier at a grocery store, earning $11 an hour. She usually works 40 hours a week, but picks up an extra eight-hour shift one week to fill in for a coworker who is ill. For that week, Betsy is entitled to be paid $11 an hour for 40 hours of work ($440) and $16.50 an hour for eight hours of work ($132), for a total of $572.

Unpaid Breaks and Time Off

Illinois law requires employers to provide employees with a 20-minute unpaid meal break to employees who work at least seven-and-a-half hours. Employees are entitled to take this break no later than five hours after their shifts start.

Federal law does not require employers to provide meal or rest breaks during the workday. However, if your employer chooses to give you time off during the day, you must be paid for:

  • any short breaks (usually 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 workweek above 40.

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 cases or lawsuits. Some of these penalties are described below; additional penalties may be available under state or local law.

In Illinois, you are entitled to receive your final paycheck (including all accrued, unused vacation time) on the next regularly scheduled payday after your employment terminates. If your employer fails to provide your final paycheck on time, you can be awarded a penalty of 2% of your final wages for every month you remain unpaid. If your employer is ordered to pay your final wages by the Illinois Department of Labor, and your employer doesn't do so within 15 days, you can collect 1% of your final wages for each day that your employer is late.

If your employer violates state minimum wage or overtime laws, you can also request a penalty of 2% of your unpaid wages for each month your wages remain unpaid. If your employer violates federal minimum wage or overtime laws, you can request liquidated damages: an award intended to compensate you for financial losses caused by your employer's actions that are difficult to measure. You can receive liquidated damages in an amount equal to your unpaid wages. For example, if your employer failed to pay you $1,800 in overtime, you would be entitled to an additional $1,800 in liquidated damages, or $3,600 total.

Filing a Lawsuit

If your employer failed to pay you all of the wages you are owed, you can file a wage claim with the Illinois Labor Department. The Illinois Labor Department allows you to file a wage claim online. In general, you must file your wage claim within one year after your employer violates the law.

If you choose to file a lawsuit in court, the time limits depend on your claim and situation. Minimum wage and overtime claims brought under state law must generally be filed within three years. Under federal law, you have two years to file claims for overtime or minimum wage violations; however, if your employer violated the law willfully, the time limit is extended to three years. For claims involving your final paycheck, the time limit is ten years.

However, additional deadlines and exceptions may apply to your situation. For example, you may also have a breach of contract claim, in which case different time limits apply. To make sure that you file your claims on time, speak with an experienced Illinois wage and hour lawyer. A lawyer can help you decide on the best course of action. And, if you win your lawsuit, your attorney can ask the judge to make your employer pay your attorneys' fees.

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