Wage and hour law should be simple, right?

Well, not exactly. Yes, your employer must pay you at least minimum wage. Yes, if you work more than 40 hours a week, your employment status may entitle you to overtime pay at time-and-a-half. Sounds good, right?

The problem is that this is where the simplicity of the system ends. In reality, any number of things can affect when you deserve pay and whether you qualify for overtime.

Definitions

In order to determine whether you have earned regular time or overtime, some things need to be defined. Consider the following:

  • Employ: The definition of this word put forth by the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division includes the words "to suffer or permit to work." You can read more about this term below.
  • Workweek: This word includes the time your employer requires you to conduct your duties at the agreed upon workplace.
  • Workday: Your workday consists of the period of time you perform your assigned duties each day and cannot be longer than your assigned production line time, scheduled shift or tour of duty.

Even though these definitions may seem straightforward, numerous disputes arise over their interpretation.

Applying the definitions

Getting back to the phrase "suffered and permitted to work," this applies to the work that you may do outside of your designated work hours, workday and workweek. For example, if you are in the middle of something important when your workday is over, you may suffer or be permitted to complete the task. Even though it was not a prescribed part of your workday, you deserve payment for your time.

Other situations which may or may not entitle you to payment include the following:

  • On-call time: If your employer considers you "on-call" while at your work site, your employer should pay you. If your employer considers you on-call on your own time, you do not collect pay unless your employer calls you to work.
  • Travel away from your home or community: If your work duties require you to travel away from home, you remain on the clock. However, you can't include the time it took you to actually reach your destination in the appropriate mode of transportation. This includes planes, trains and automobiles, among other things.
  • Travel as work: One exception to the above travel restriction is if your primary duty as an employee involves traveling between destinations.
  • Waiting time: If your job includes waiting for assignments (think secretaries waiting for dictation or firefighter waiting for a call), then you deserve pay. Otherwise, you do not.
  • Rest and meal periods: If you take a short break of no more than 20 minutes, your employer cannot deduct the time from your pay. If you have to work while you eat your lunch, your employer must pay you. If you have no work responsibility or someone relieves you while you eat, then you do not collect pay.

As you can see, work time is not as cut and dried as you may think. This isn't even an exhaustive list of the instances that could affect whether your time and activities equal work time that requires payment.

When disputes arise

You work hard for your pay, and you deserve all to which you are entitled. If your paycheck doesn't include all of the time and payment that you think it should, you may question its calculation. If you disagree with your employer's assessment of your work time, you may seek outside assistance to determine whether you have a cause of action against your employer for wage and hour violations.

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