What is Wage and Hour Law?
Understanding the federal laws that deal with how employees are compensated
on December 15, 2016
Updated on January 31, 2023
Wage and hour law is a subset of employment law that deals with how employees are compensated and the amount of time they work. Common issues include whether you were entitled to overtime pay and whether you are being appropriately compensated under federal and state laws.
If you believe your employer has violated minimum wage laws or other wage and hour laws, you might want to consider hiring a lawyer. The following is an overview of the applicable federal law so you can feel confident speaking with an attorney.
Each state has its own wage and hour requirements, but all employers must comply with the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA does all of the following:
- Minimum wage. Under the FLSA, employers must pay all nonexempt employees at least minimum wage for all hours worked. The FLSA sets federal minimum wage requirements (currently $7.25 per hour). States may set higher minimum wage rates but cannot go below the federal wage rate.
- Overtime hours. If a nonexempt employee works more than 40 hours in a workweek, the hours in excess of 40 must be paid at least one-half times the regular rate of pay.
- Recordkeeping. Employers must keep track of employee time and payment of wages.
- Child labor laws. The FLSA sets basic requirements regarding the employment of minors and their well-being in the workplace.
The U.S. Department of Labor uses the term “hours worked” to help employers determine what hours they need to pay employees for and what hours they don’t. The term is deceptively simple because there are many things that might not seem like work but for which the employer is required to pay the employee.
Whether employees should be paid for time spent waiting to work is a fact-specific analysis, but the U.S. Department of Labor offers some guidance: If an employee is “engaged to wait,” they should be paid for the time spent waiting. For example, receptionists need to be available to answer the phone or greet a client, so downtime spent reading or browsing the internet at their desk would count toward hours worked. The same is true for firefighters who must be in the station in case of an alarm but might read or play games while waiting. On the other hand, if an employee is “waiting to be engaged,” the employer does not need to pay them for this time. An example is a delivery driver who makes a delivery at noon and is free to do what they would like until their next delivery at 6 p.m.
In general, if an on-call employee must remain on the employer’s premises that employee should be paid for the on-call time. If, however, the on-call employee can stay at home or use their on-call time as they wish as long as they can be reached, the employer generally will not have to pay for this time.
Not all travel time is compensable. For example, your ordinary travel from home to work to home is not considered work time. If, however, you are required to travel to and from different job sites as part of your normal workday, that travel may be considered work time.
Breaks and Meals
Employees are commonly permitted to take rest breaks that are usually 20 minutes or shorter, and these breaks should be paid as hours worked. Longer meal periods (usually at least 30 minutes) are not considered work time and do not need to be compensated. During these breaks, employees should be relieved of all work duties. Common compensation problems arise when employees eat at their desks and answer work-related phone calls but are not paid. As the employees are not relieved of all work duties, it cannot be said that they are on an unpaid meal break.
Exempt vs. Nonexempt
Most private sector employers pay their employees at least minimum wage and overtime. But employers don’t necessarily have to pay all of their employees the minimum wage rate or overtime under the FLSA. This is because some employees are exempt from overtime requirements, and some are exempt from both overtime and minimum wage requirements.
Some of the most common exemptions from both minimum wage and overtime requirements are administrative, executive, creative, and computer employees. Some other examples include amusement park employees, switchboard operators, small newspaper employees, and criminal investigators.
Each exemption has its own specific requirements that must be met, so you may find it helpful to speak with an employment lawyer to better understand the specifics and whether an exemption applies to you.
Common Questions for an Attorney
Below are some common questions you might want to consider when meeting with an attorney for the first time.
- Am I entitled to overtime if I am a salaried employee?
- How do I know if I should have been paid overtime?
- How do I know I am getting paid my industry’s prevailing wage?
- Am I entitled to fringe benefits such as healthcare insurance?
- What do I do if my employer makes me take unpaid breaks?
- Does my boss have to pay me for business trips?
- How do I report unpaid wages?
Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs
It is important to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire case. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory, and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location.
Why Should I Talk to a Lawyer?
Much of your case will depend on information found in records kept by your employer. Your lawyer will be able to help you obtain those documents through a process called discovery. They will also conduct interviews of key players in your case that will help you gather information and evidence to support your claim.
A lawyer will further be able to anticipate potential problems with your case and advise you on how to approach them. They can also keep track of deadlines and file all the paperwork with the necessary courts and agencies, giving you one less thing to worry about.