What's Your Unpaid Wage Claim Worth in Massachusetts?

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

In Massachusetts, federal and state law determine how much you must be paid, when you must be paid, and more. If your employer has failed to pay you properly or on time, you may be entitled to recover not only your unpaid wages, but also penalties intended to punish your employer for breaking the law. Below, we explain how to calculate and collect what you are owed.

Unpaid Wages

Employees must be paid at least the minimum wage per hour. You are entitled to be paid the highest minimum wage that applies where you work, whether that's the federal, state, or local rate. In Massachusetts, the minimum wage is $11 as of January 1, 2017. Massachusetts employees are entitled to the state minimum wage because it is higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25. If the city or county where you work has a higher minimum wage, you are entitled to that amount.

To calculate your unpaid minimum wage claim, 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 instead of the state minimum wage for three weeks of full-time work at the beginning of 2017, you would be entitled to $3.75 an hour ($11−$7.25) times 120 hours (40 hours × 3 weeks), or $450.

If you receive tips as part of your compensation, your employer can pay you a lower hourly wage (called a "tip credit"). In Massachusetts, employers may pay tipped employees as little as $3.75 an hour. However, employers may take this tip credit only if your hourly wages plus tips add up to at least the minimum wage; otherwise, your employer must pay you the difference. To learn more, see Massachusetts Laws for Tipped Employees.

Unpaid Overtime

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

Not all employees are entitled to earn overtime, 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 $18 an hour, you are entitled to be paid $27 an hour for overtime work.

Example: Jamal is a finish carpenter, working 40 hours a week for $20 an hour. To complete a big project, he works an extra five hours in one week. He is entitled to $20 an hour for the first 40 hours ($800) and $30 an hour for five overtime hours ($150), for a total of $950.

Unpaid Breaks and Time Off

Federal law does not require employers to provide employees with meal or rest breaks during the day. However, Massachusetts law does give you the right to an unpaid, 30-minute meal break if you work a shift of at least six hours.

In addition, if your employer chooses to provide other time off, you are entitled to be paid for the following:

  • any short breaks (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 week.

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

If your employer violates state minimum wage or overtime laws in Massachusetts, you have the right to request a penalty to triple your damages. In other words, you can receive three times the amount your employer should have paid you.

Massachusetts law also requires employers to provide employees with their final paychecks on the day they are fired or laid off. If you quit, you are entitled to receive your paycheck on the next scheduled payday or on the Saturday following your resignation, whichever is sooner. If your employer doesn’t meet these deadlines, you can ask for triple the amount of your unpaid final wages.

Filing a Lawsuit

If your employer failed to pay you all of the wages you earned, you can file a wage claim with the Fair Labor Division of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office. (The Attorney General’s office has made its wage claim form available online.) In some cases, you must file a wage claim before you can file a lawsuit, including alleged violations of the state meal break law, final paycheck law, and laws prohibiting retaliation for reporting violations of wage and hour laws.

If you plan to move forward with a lawsuit or a wage claim, talk to an experienced Massachusetts wage and hour lawyer. A lawyer can file a wage claim on your behalf or file a lawsuit in court seeking to collect your unpaid wages. If you win your lawsuit, your attorney can ask the judge to make your employer pay your attorneys' fees.

If you plan to assert your rights under state law, you must file a lawsuit within three years after your employer failed to pay you the wages you earned. For violations of federal law, you must generally file your claim or lawsuit within two years (or three years, if your employer willfully violated the law). However, you shouldn’t wait this long to pursue your rights. Talk to a lawyer right away if you are considering legal action. It’s best to file a claim quickly, before evidence disappears and memories fade. And, different time limits may apply to other claims that you might have, such as a breach of contract claim.

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