What's Your Unpaid Wage Claim Worth in Wisconsin?

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

In Wisconsin, state and federal laws determine how much you must be paid (including minimum wage and overtime), when you must be paid, and more. If your employer has not paid you what you have earned, 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

Employees must be paid at least the minimum hourly wage. In Wisconsin, the state minimum wage rate is the same as the federal minimum: $7.25 an hour. You must be paid at least this much for each hour that you work. If your city 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 $5.75 an hour for your first three weeks of full-time work, you would be entitled to $1.50 an hour times 40 hours times three weeks, or $180.

In most states, 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. This is true in Wisconsin, where you may be paid as little as $2.33 an hour, as long as you earn enough in tips to bring your hourly rate up to at least $7.25 an hour. Learn more in Wisconsin 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 and state law, Wisconsin 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 overtime premium of 50% of your hourly rate. For example, if you are usually paid $12 an hour, you are entitled to be paid time and a half—$18 an hour—for overtime work.

Example: Janelle busses tables at a restaurant. She typically earns $8 an hour and works 40 hours a week. When local hotels are booked for a big convention, Janelle picks up an extra eight-hour shift. She is entitled to $416 for the week: $320 for her first 40 hours at $8, plus $96 for her eight overtime hours at $12.

Unpaid Breaks

Although some states require employers to provide a meal or rest break, Wisconsin doesn’t require either type of break. (See our article on Wisconsin meal and rest breaks.) However, under federal law, you are entitled to be paid for the following, if your employer provides them:

  • any short breaks (less than 20 minutes) during the workday, and
  • any time during which you must work, even if your employer calls it a break (for example if you’re required to eat lunch at your desk to answer phone calls).

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 week.

Penalties for Unpaid Wages

If your employer violates the federal minimum wage or overtime laws, you have the right to collect liquidated damages. Liquidated damages are the total amount of your unpaid wages. For example, if your employer fails to pay you $4,500 in overtime, you can request liquidated damages in the same amount, for a total award of $9,000.

In some circumstances, Wisconsin law allows a judge to require your employer to pay you an additional 50% or 100% of your unpaid wage claim. If your claim is resolved through the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s administrative process, your employer may be required to pay you an additional 50% of your wages, for certain repeat offenses.

Filing a Lawsuit

If your employer failed to pay you all of the wages you earned, you can file a lawsuit in court or a wage claim with the Equal Rights Division of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. (Check the Division’s website for information on how to file a claim, including a claim form.)

If you plan to go forward with a lawsuit or a wage claim, talk to an experienced Wisconsin wage and hour lawyer about representing you. A lawyer can represent you in either process. 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. You must generally file claims for unpaid wages within two years under federal or Wisconsin law. However, you shouldn’t wait this long. Memories fade, documents can be lost, and people move on to new jobs. It’s best to file a wage claim soon 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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