Many employees know that they can recover unpaid wages if their employers failed to pay them minimum wage or overtime. But did you also know that you can recover penalties and other sums from your employer for violating your wage rights? Below, we explain two of the most common such awards available under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA): liquidated damages and punitive damages. (For more information on the FLSA in general, see our Wage & Hour FAQ.)
What Are Liquidated Damages?
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regulates wages and hours for most employees working in the United States. If your employer violates the FLSA, you can recover not only your unpaid wages, but also an award called “liquidated damages.” An award of liquidated damages is equal to the amount you are owed in unpaid wages. For this reason, liquidated damages are often referred to as "double damages." For example, if your employer failed to pay you $10,000 in minimum wage and overtime, you can receive an additional $10,000 as liquidated damages, for a total of $20,000.
Employers can avoid paying liquidated damages only if they can prove that they acted in good faith and reasonably believed that they were not required to pay the wages in question. The key to this defense is that the employer must have a good reason to believe that it was acting legally. Being ignorant of the FLSA rules is not enough. Because this defense is difficult to prove, most employees will be able to recover liquidated damages.
Liquidated damages are intended to compensate you for being deprived of your wages from the time they were owed to the time of your award. Because this overlaps with the purpose of prejudgment interest, you typically cannot receive both types of awards.
Several states have their own wage laws that allow workers to recover liquidated damages. In some states, such as Massachusetts, the worker may be able to recover a similar award called “treble damages,” which is an amount equal to two times the unpaid wages. These damages are sometimes referred to as “triple damages.” For example, if you are owed $5,000 in unpaid overtime, you can receive an additional $10,000 as treble damages, for a total of $15,000.
What Are Punitive Damages?
The FLSA does not have a specific provision for punitive damages: an amount intended to punish the employer for intentionally violating the law. A minority of courts will award punitive damages if you were retaliated against for exercising your rights under the FLSA. However, most courts will not award punitive damages under federal law.
However, some states have wage laws that allow workers to collect punitive damages for intentional wage violations. The amount that you can receive might be set by state law, or it might be up to the court’s discretion.
Other Penalties for Wage Violations
Some states have other penalties available for specific wage violations. For example, many states allow workers to recover a penalty if they don’t receive their final paychecks on time. Some states, including California, have penalties for violating meal and rest break laws or sick leave laws. For more information on the penalties available in your state, select it from the list at our How to Calculate Your Wage Claim by State page.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can I get liquidated damages under both federal and state law?
- What kind of proof do I need to win my FLSA claim?
- Can I get both liquidated damages and punitive damages?