What's Your Unpaid Wage Claim Worth in Tennessee?

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

In Tennessee, state and federal laws determine how much you must be paid, when you must be paid, and more. If your employer has not paid you properly or on time, you can recover not only your unpaid wages, but also penalties intended to punish your employer for wage theft. Below, we explain how to calculate what you are owed.

Unpaid Wages

Tennessee employees are entitled to the federal minimum hourly wage: $7.25. If your city or county has a higher minimum wage, you are entitled to that amount.

To calculate your unpaid minimum wage, subtract what you were actually paid per hour from what you should have been paid per hour. For example, if you were paid only $5.25 an hour for your first six weeks of full-time work, you would be entitled to $2 times 40 hours times six weeks, or $480.

Tennessee employers may pay a lower minimum wage to employees who earn tips, as long as the hourly wage plus tips adds up to at least the full minimum wage. Learn more in Tennessee Laws for Tipped Employees.

Unpaid Overtime

Failing to pay the overtime premium is one of the most common ways employers violate wage laws. Under federal law, Tennessee employees are entitled to overtime if they work more than 40 hours in a week.

You are entitled to overtime unless your employer can prove that you fit into one of the narrow exemptions to the overtime rules. The most common exemptions are for outside salespeople and “white-collar” employees who do professional, managerial, and administrative work and who have the authority to make relatively high-level decisions; see our overtime page for more information.

If your employer has failed to pay you for overtime, you are entitled to an extra 50% of your regular hourly rate. For example, if you are usually paid $10 an hour, you are entitled to be paid time and a half—$15 an hour—for overtime work.

Example: Jori works at a convenience store, earning $8 an hour. She usually works 40 hours a week. However, she agrees to come in for an extra 8-hour shift when a coworker call in sick. For that week, she is entitled to $8 an hour for her first 40 hours ($320), plus $12 per hour for her extra eight-hour shift ($96), for a grand total of $416 for the week.

Unpaid Breaks and Time Off

In Tennessee, employees who are scheduled to work six or more consecutive hours are entitled to a 30-minute unpaid meal break, unless the workplace environment provides ample opportunity for appropriate meal breaks. (Certain tipped employees may waive their right to a meal break, in some circumstances.)

Federal law doesn’t mandate any meal or rest breaks. However, it does require employers to pay for the following:

  • any breaks that are less than 20 minutes, and
  • any breaks during which employees perform work (for example, if you have to eat lunch at your desk in order to cover the phones).

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.

Penalties for Unpaid Wages

Federal law give employees the right to collect penalties in addition to the wages they should have been paid, if they win an administrative case or lawsuit. Some of these penalties are described below; additional penalties may be available.

If your employer violates the federal minimum wage or overtime laws, you have the right to request liquidated damages in the amount of your unpaid wages. In other words, if your employer fails to pay you $4,500 in overtime, you can request another $4,500 in liquidated damages, for a total award of $9,000.

Filing a Lawsuit

If your employer failed to pay you all of the wages you earned, you can file a wage claim with the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The Department is solely responsible for enforcing the state’s wage and hour laws; the state recently clarified that its laws don’t create a private right of action, which means you can’t file your own lawsuit. However, you may have the right to file a lawsuit if, for example, your employer breached an employment contract regarding wages.

If you plan to go forward with a lawsuit or a wage claim, talk to an experienced Tennessee employment lawyer. A lawyer can represent you in either proceeding. If you win, your attorney can ask the judge to require your employer to pay his or her fee.

If you plan to assert your rights, you should act quickly. There are time limits for filing these claims, which a lawyer can explain to you. Memories fade, documents can be lost, and people move on to new jobs. It’s best to file a wage claim shortly after your employer failed to pay you, so you can get the money you are owed and get on with your life.

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