What's Your Unpaid Wage Claim Worth in Montana?

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

In Montana, state and federal law determine how much you must be paid, when you must be paid, and more. If your employer has not timely paid you what you have earned, you may be entitled to recover not only your unpaid wages, but also penalties intended to punish your employer for wage violations. 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. Montana's minimum wage is higher than the current federal minimum wage of $7.25. If the city or county where you work has an even higher minimum wage, you are entitled to that higher amount.

For smaller employers (those with gross annual sales of $110,000 or less), the minimum wage in Montana is $4. However, these employers might still be covered by the federal minimum wage law, for example, if they move or produce goods across state lines. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25.

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, and then multiply that amount by the total number of hours you worked. For example, if your employer paid you $1 less than the minimum wage for 120 hours of work, you would be entitled to $120.

In most states, employers may pay a lower minimum wage to tipped employees, as long as they earn enough in tips to bring their hourly wages up to the minimum wage. Montana does not allow this, however. In Montana, employers must pay tipped employees the full state minimum wage for each hour worked. To learn more, see Montana Laws for Tipped Employees.

Unpaid Overtime

Failing to pay the overtime premium is one of the most common wage violations by employers. In Montana, most employees are entitled to earn overtime if they work more than 40 hours in a workweek. Students employed by recreational or seasonal businesses are entitled to overtime if they work more than 48 hours in a workweek.

Not all employees are entitled to earn overtime, however. 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 ourovertime 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 $15 an hour, you are entitled to be paid $22.50 an hour for overtime work.

Example: Jonas works at a day care center. He usually works 40 hours a week at $11 an hour. When one of his coworkers takes a vacation, Jonas works ten extra hours. For that week, he is entitled to $11 an hour for the first 40 hours ($440) and $16.50 an hour for ten overtime hours ($165), for a total of $605.

Unpaid Breaks and Time Off

Neither Montana nor federal law gives employees the right to any meal or rest breaks during the workday. However, if your employer chooses to provide breaks, 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 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 the minimum wage or overtime laws, you have the right to request liquidated damages. If you are claiming a violation of the federal law, you can ask for liquidated damages in the total amount of your unpaid wages. In other words, if your employer fails to pay you $2,000 in overtime, you can request an additional $2,000 in liquidated damages, for a total award of $4,000. If you are claiming a violation of state law, you may receive liquidated damages of up to 55% of your unpaid wages; if your employer acted egregiously (by, for example, repeatedly violating the law or falsifying records), the penalty is 110% of your unpaid wages.

Montana law also requires employers to provide employees with their final paychecks on the day they are fired or laid off. By written policy, your employer can extend this deadline to 15 days after you are fired or the next scheduled payday, whichever is sooner. If you quit, you are entitled to your final check within 15 days or on the next scheduled payday, whichever is sooner. If your employer doesn’t provide your check on time, you may collect a penalty of 110% of your final unpaid wages.

Filing a Lawsuit

If your employer failed to pay you all of the wages you earned, you can file a lawsuit or a wage claim with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. The Department has made its wage claim form available online.

If you plan to move forward with a lawsuit or a wage claim, talk to an experienced Montana 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 to pay your attorneys' fees.

If you plan to assert your rights under state law, you will have to act quickly. You must file a lawsuit or wage claim within 180 days of the violation. Once you file, you can seek unpaid wages going back two years (or three years, if your employer willfully broke the law). For violations of federal law, you must file within two years (or three years, if your employer willfully violated the law). Different time limits may apply to other claims that you might have, such as a breach of contract claim. To find out the full extent of your claims and deadlines, speak to an employment lawyer right away.

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