What's Your Unpaid Wage Claim Worth in Iowa?

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

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 wage violations. This article explains wage and hour rules in Iowa, including how to determine and collect the money you are owed.

Unpaid Wages

Employees must be paid at least 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. Iowa’s minimum wage is the same as the federal minimum wage: $7.25 an hour. If you work in a city or county with a higher minimum wage, you are entitled to that amount.

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 instance, if your employer paid you only $7 an hour for six weeks of full-time work, you would be entitled to $0.25 times 240 hours (40 hours × 6), for a total of $60.

If you receive tips from customers, your employer can pay you as little as $4.35 an hour, as long as you earn enough in tips to bring your total hourly earnings up to at least the minimum wage. To learn more, see Iowa Laws for Tipped Employees.

Unpaid Overtime

Failing to pay employees properly for overtime is one of the most common wage violations by employers. While Iowa doesn’t have its own overtime laws, Iowa employers are required to follow the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA requires employers to pay overtime to employees who 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 $12, you are entitled to $18 an hour for overtime work.

Example: Graciela works 40 hours a week as a receptionist, earning $15 an hour. If she put in four extra hours one week, she would be entitled to $15 an hour for the first 40 hours ($600) and $22.50 an hour for four overtime hours ($90). In total, she should receive $690.

Unpaid Breaks and Time Off

Neither federal nor Iowa law requires employers to provide meal or rest breaks to employees during the workday. However, if your employer chooses to let you take breaks, 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 workweek above 40.

Penalties for Unpaid Wages

In addition to the wages you should have received, you may be entitled to collect liquidated damages. Liquidated damages are intended to compensate you for financial losses caused by your employer's actions that are difficult to measure.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, if your employer violates minimum wage or overtime rules, you can receive an amount equal to your unpaid wages as liquidated damages.

Liquidated damages are also available under Iowa law. In Iowa, you are entitled to be paid for your work on a monthly, semi-monthly, or biweekly basis, at regular intervals according to a schedule designated in advance by your employer. If your employer violates Iowa’s payday rules, you are entitled to liquidated damages in the amount of 5% of your unpaid wages for every day you aren’t paid, excluding the first seven days after you should have been paid and Sundays and holidays. The total liquidated damages award can’t be more than your unpaid wages.

Filing a Wage Claim or Lawsuit

If your employer failed to pay you all of the wages you are owed, you may be able to file a complaint with the Iowa Division of Labor. (Iowa’s wage claim form is available online.) However, the Iowa Division of Labor will accept wage claims only if the amount you are asking for doesn’t exceed $5,000. And, if you want to file a claim for unpaid overtime, you must file your complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division. You may also file a lawsuit to recover your unpaid wages.

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

Whether you plan to file a wage claim or lawsuit, you should move quickly. In Iowa, you have only one year to file a wage claim with the Iowa Division of Labor. To file a lawsuit for unpaid wages, you generally have two years under state and federal law. (If your employer's actions were willful, you have three years under federal law.) An attorney 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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