We lock our houses, cars, and secure personal belongings for a reason. Being the victim of theft is maddening and can lead to financial difficulty. But it may surprise you to learn that the largest source of theft in the U.S. doesn't involve personal property like televisions and jewelry. If you are the victim of theft, chances are good that it involves stealing your wages. Employers steal billions of dollars from workers every year.

What Is Wage Theft?

Wage theft occurs when your employer doesn't pay you the full amount you are owed. This could mean a late or absent paycheck, but that's relatively rare. A more common type of wage theft occurs when an employer fails to pay overtime, or forces employees to work through breaks. You are owed that money under the law. If your employer is not paying you they are stealing your rightfully earned money.

Salaried? You May Still Be Entitled to Overtime Pay

You may think that because you are salaried you can't get overtime. This isn't always true. Federal law sets out which employees are “exempt" from overtime requirements. But just because your employer says you are exempt doesn't mean it is true. Are you a retail manager, for example? You must make a certain amount of money in order to be considered exempt from overtime. This is why Walmart raised the salary of its managers a few years ago. If you aren't paid the minimum salary, you need to be paid time-and-a-half for every hour you work over 40 in a week.

Common Examples of Wage Theft

Wage theft takes many different forms. If you are unsure but feel you aren't being paid what you are owed under the law, talk to an employment law attorney. Common examples of wage theft include:

  • Asking an employee to stay late to do cleanup without payNot allowing breaks during the workday - but still paying employees for only 8 hours of work
  • Taking tips or charging a “service fee" that doesn't go to the servers, bartenders or whoever it was that actually performed the service
  • Classifying an employee as exempt when they should be non-exempt. This could happen by giving an employee the title of manager or assistant manager, for example, when in reality they do the job duties of a regular employee and should be paid overtime

What Are Your Options?

You may think there's little you can do to combat wage theft. You need your job, and it's understandable to worry about what will happen if you come forward about it. The good news is that the law also protects you after you report wage theft. If your employer demotes you, fires you, or passes you over for a promotion, you can sue them for that, too.

If your employer steals wages routinely from all employees, then you may be able to join a class action lawsuit against your employer. A class action occurs when one or two plaintiffs (the person suing) represent an entire class of people. In this case, it would be all of your co-workers. By filing a class action, you are able to increase your power and force your employer to take yous seriously.

The law here can be complex, and your state may have additional protections. New York and California have additional protections for workers, for example. If you are in doubt, contact an employment law attorney to discuss your options. It's your money. Don't let your employer steal it.