In the realm of small businesses, employees are undeniably vital. The process of hiring and retaining workers stands as one of the foremost challenges faced by business owners. In today’s fiercely competitive labor market, employers are actively seeking ways to gain an edge in attracting and retaining top talent. While factors other than compensation often influence job seekers, pay remains a critical consideration. Any complications or issues related to employee compensation can lead to dissatisfaction and a potential exodus of employees. Moreover, these problems can run afoul of wage laws, inviting fines, penalties, and legal disputes.
Even in cases where employers steer clear of significant violations, such as missing paychecks or withholding pay, they may still find themselves in hot water with the law if they fail to maintain proper payroll records.
Federal and State Wage Laws
Small businesses often begin with little more than personal resources and entrepreneurial spirit. However, as they grow, it becomes increasingly necessary to hire employees. This transition brings forth a myriad of employment laws to navigate. Once the employment agreements are signed and work commences, employers must adhere to both federal and state labor laws.
Most businesses that employ full- and part-time workers are subject to key federal laws that establish standards for paying employees, among other provisions. These laws include:
- The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA): Administered and enforced by the Department of Labor (DOL), the FLSA sets minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and youth employment standards for public and private sector workers. It mandates that employees receive at least the federal minimum wage for all hours worked and overtime pay at a rate of at least 1.5 times their regular pay for hours worked beyond forty hours per workweek. Employers covered by the FLSA must also maintain records for nonexempt employees for at least three years.
- It’s important to note that the FLSA does not establish payday requirements but requires that wages be paid on the regular payday for the covered pay period.
- Furthermore, the FLSA does not regulate aspects like holiday pay, vacation pay, severance pay, or meal and rest periods, among others.
- Certain occupations may be exempt from overtime pay under the FLSA, and some salaried employees might be exempt from minimum wage and overtime pay rules.
- State Labor Laws: Many states have their own labor laws that may impose stricter requirements than the FLSA. These state laws can cover areas such as minimum wage, overtime exemptions, payday requirements, meal and rest breaks, wage deductions, sick leave, and vacation policies. In conflicts between state and federal laws, employers are typically required to adhere to the law that offers greater protection to workers.
Beyond these federal and state labor laws, employers must also comply with a range of other employment-related legal requirements, including those related to workplace safety, family and medical leave, retirement plans, workers’ compensation, and discrimination.
Common Employee Payment Violations
Wage theft, a term used to describe instances where employees do not receive legally mandated wages for their labor, has significant repercussions for the American economy. Millions of workers nationwide fall victim to wage theft each year, resulting in billions of dollars in lost wages. Examples of wage theft include:
- Paying employees less than the legally required minimum wage.
- Failing to compensate employees for overtime work.
- Requesting off-the-clock work before or after scheduled shifts.
- Denying meal breaks.
- Making illegal wage deductions.
- Mishandling tips or not paying the difference between tips and the minimum wage.
- Misclassifying employees as independent contractors to evade wage and hour laws.
Another issue that can lead to wage and hour violations is withholding or deducting payment from employees beyond legally mandated withholdings. While lawful wage deductions can include taxes, employee benefits, union dues, and authorized expenses, wage garnishment for unpaid consumer debt is permissible only up to a certain limit, with some states having their own garnishment rules.
It’s worth noting that bankruptcy does not necessarily excuse employers from paying employees. Although the FLSA doesn’t specifically address bankruptcy, bankruptcy courts typically prioritize employee wages and salaries over other forms of debt, regardless of whether the business continues operations or closes. However, this doesn’t guarantee that employees will receive their due wages if the employer lacks the financial means to pay them.
Employee payment violations can lead to various consequences for employers, including legal actions initiated by the U.S. Department of Labor, state labor departments, and state attorneys general. Penalties can include both civil and criminal penalties, and employees can file class action lawsuits to recover unpaid wages. In recent years, legal actions have resulted in the recovery of more than $3 billion in unpaid wages for workers.
To mitigate these risks, employers must maintain detailed payroll records in compliance with the FLSA and other relevant laws. FLSA recordkeeping requirements include maintaining information on employees’ personal details, pay rates, hours worked, and wages paid.
Employers should also be prepared for potential audits by the Department of Labor, which can be triggered by employee complaints or occur randomly. During an audit, employers should be ready to provide requested documentation and expect a thorough examination of their records.
Wage and Hour Compliance: A Collaborative Effort
While employees are undoubtedly valuable assets for any business, hiring them introduces a substantial compliance burden. Employers must navigate a complex web of labor laws at both federal and state levels. Diligent recordkeeping is crucial in case disputes over wages arise. However, even meticulous records cannot fully shield an employer from the consequences of payment violations, even when such violations are unintentional. The financial and reputational costs of a wage and hour action can pose significant challenges for small businesses.
To navigate the complexities of employee payment compliance successfully, it’s essential to seek guidance from legal experts specializing in small business matters. Our team of small business attorneys can provide valuable advice to ensure compliance with all relevant laws governing employee compensation and treatment. To arrange a consultation with our team, please call or contact us today.