When you leave a job—whether you quit, are fired, or are laid off—your employer is required to give you your final paycheck in a timely manner. State laws determine when your last paycheck is due, and what it must include.
If your employer fails to pay you on time or doesn't pay you adequately, there are steps you can take to ensure that you get what you're owed. You may also be able to recover penalties for each day that your paycheck is late. Here's what you need to know.
When your final paycheck is due may depend on whether you quit or were fired or laid off. About half of the states require employers to pay you more promptly if you are fired or laid off than if you quit. In those states, employees who are fired or laid off often must be paid immediately or by the next day, while employees who resign need not be paid until the next regular payday. In other states, such as Texas, the deadline for final paychecks is sooner if you quit than if you were fired.
In the remainder of the states, the deadline for final paychecks is the same regardless of whether you quit or were fired. In some of those states, final paychecks are due within a handful of days (usually one to four); in others, the deadline is the next regularly-scheduled payday. And under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers must issue an employee's final paycheck on or before the next payday.
To find out what the law is in your state, see our chart on Final Paychecks for Departing Employees.
Many states require employers to include an employee's accrued, unused vacation time in the employee's final paycheck. Some states require this regardless of the employer's policies; other states require it only if the employer doesn't have a contrary policy or practice, or only if the employer has agreed to include vacation time in the final paycheck.
Some states don't have laws requiring your employer to pay you for accrued vacation time. However, your employment agreement or company benefits policy might allow you to recover payment for unused vacation days, sick days, or other benefits. Some companies require that you give at least two weeks' notice before quitting in order to receive reimbursement for unused benefits in your final paycheck.
In some states, employers may be able to withhold any debts that you owe them or any portion of your final paycheck that is in dispute. In many states, however, employers may not withhold any portion of your final paycheck unless you expressly allow it or deductions are authorized by law (for example, to pay state or federal taxes).
In all states except South Dakota, employers are not allowed to withhold your entire paycheck based on the fact that you owe them a debt. For example, if you've left your job without returning company property, your former employer is legally prohibited from refusing to give you your final paycheck until you return the equipment. South Dakota is the exception. It allows an employer to withhold the final paycheck until the employee returns any property belonging to the employer. In light of the federal FLSA's requirement that employers issue final paychecks before the next payday, however, it would appear that South Dakota employers cannot withhold paychecks beyond the next scheduled payday without violating federal law.
If you don't get your final paycheck on time, or your check doesn't include all the compensation to which you're entitled, your first step should be to contact the HR or payroll department of your former employer. There may be a simple explanation for why you haven't received your paycheck, such as a clerical or postal service error.
If you still aren't getting paid, one option is to file a complaint with your state's labor department. State labor offices generally have a process for adjudicating claims on behalf of employees who haven't received the wages they're owed.
Another option if you haven't been paid is to hire an employment lawyer. An experienced lawyer might be able to help you resolve your claim without going to court—for example, by sending your former employer a "demand letter" seeking prompt payment of your claim. Demand letters can be effective because they demonstrate that you're serious about enforcing your rights.
An employment lawyer can also help you file a lawsuit against your former employer. If the amount you're owed is between approximately $5,000 and $10,000, you might be required to file in small claims court, in which case, hiring a lawyer to represent you might not be cost-effective.
An employment lawyer can advise you on the best course of action to pursue to ensure that you recover all of your unpaid wages, accrued vacation time, and any late penalties that you're owed if you don't receive your final paycheck on time.