What's Your Unpaid Wage Claim Worth in Washington, DC?

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

If you have not been paid properly for your work in the District of Columbia, you may be entitled not only to your unpaid wages, but also to penalties intended to punish your employer for wage violations. Federal and D.C. law determine how much employees must be paid, when they must be paid, and what penalties you can collect from an employer who violates these laws.

Unpaid Wages

Employees must be paid at least the 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. The minimum wage in D.C. is $12.50 until July 1, 2018, when it will increase to $13.25. Because the federal minimum wage is currently $7.25, employees who work in D.C. are entitled to the higher District wage.

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 $2 less than the minimum wage for 100 hours of work, you would be entitled to $200.

If you receive tips at your job, your employer can pay you a lower minimum wage, as long as you earn enough in tips to bring your wages up to minimum wage. In D.C., employers can pay tipped employees as little as $3.33 an hour for the first half of 2018. See District of Columbia Laws for Tipped Employees to learn more.

Unpaid Overtime

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

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

Example: Jayden usually works an eight-hour shift, Monday through Friday, for $15 an hour. When several of his coworkers get the flu, his manager asks him to work late on Monday and Tuesday. He works two extra hours both days. He is entitled to be paid time-and-a-half – or $22.50 – for those four extra hours, for a total of $90 (in addition to 40 hours at his regular rate).

Unpaid Breaks and Time Off

Neither federal law nor District of Columbia law gives employees the right to take meal or rest breaks during the workday. However, if your employer chooses to let you take breaks, you may be entitled to pay for that time. 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 above eight in a day or 40 in a workweek.

Penalties for Unpaid Wages

The District of Columbia gives employees the right to request penalties, on top of the wages they are owed, if their employers fail to pay them properly or on time. Here are some of the penalties that might be available:

  • Paid sick leave. Employers in D.C. must give employees a certain amount of paid time off to recuperate from an illness, to care for a sick family member, or to seek counseling, medical attention, or other assistance to deal with domestic violence. (The amount of leave depends on the size of the employer; see Family and Medical Leave Laws in the District of Columbia for more information.) If your employer fails to give you this leave, in addition to the pay you should have received, you can be awarded a penalty of $500 for each day that you had to either work or take unpaid leave. In addition, if you file a lawsuit against your employer, you can also collect compensatory damages (for emotional distress and other harm that you suffered) and punitive damages (intended to punish your employer for breaking the law).
  • Treble damages for minimum wage violations. If your employer violates the minimum wage law, you can receive treble damages: three times your unpaid wages. This amount is in addition to your actual wage award.
  • Treble damages for final paycheck. Your D.C. employer must provide you with your final paycheck within a certain amount of time. If you are laid off or fired, you must receive your final paycheck on the next business. If you quit, you must receive your final paycheck within seven days or on the next regular payday, whichever is sooner. If your employer doesn’t pay you on time, you can receive 10% of the amount you’re owed for each day your check is late, up to three times the total amount you’re owed.
  • Liquidated damages for retaliation. An employer who fires, threatens, or otherwise retaliates against an employee who complains of a minimum wage violation can be required to pay liquidated damages, in an amount between $1,000 and $10,000.

Filing a Wage Claim or Lawsuit

If your employer failed to pay you all of the wages you earned, you can either file a wage claim with the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES) or file a lawsuit in court. You have three years to file your wage claim or a lawsuit for unpaid wages or overtime under state law. For violations of federal law, you must file within two years (or, if your employer's violations were willful, within three years). A lawyer can also tell you if you have any other claims, such as a breach of contract claim, to which different time limits typically apply.

If you aren’t comfortable filing a claim on your own behalf, or you have a large or complex wage claim, consult with an experienced D.C. wage and hour lawyer. A lawyer can file a wage claim on your behalf or file a lawsuit in court. If you win, your attorney can ask the judge to make your employer pay your attorneys’ fees.

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